South Africa were 42-1 and enjoyed a 175-run lead at stumps on day three at Centurion.
The significance of Kagiso Rabada’s performance should not be downplayed. A fiery spell before lunch yielded the key scalps of Joe Root, James Taylor, and Jonny Bairstow. A super-human effort with the second new ball proved the undoing of Ben Stokes, who was scoring quickly at that stage.
Rabada accounted for Stuart Broad after the tea break and in doing so became the youngest South African to take seven wickets in an innings. As it stands, the 7-112 achieved at Centurion is Rabada’s best performance to date. It is also the third-best Test display on this ground.
Rabada’s team-mates will be happier than most. While Rabada produced a red-hot individual performance at Centurion on day three, the majority of the South African side disappointed with showings that ranged between lukewarm and ice-cold. How different the England scorecard may have looked if Rabada didn’t strike to end not one, but several burgeoning partnerships.
Rabada’s achievement deserves to be celebrated. At the same time, England deserve some credit for fighting their way back into this contest. They were 211-6 at lunch, but, thanks in large part to the efforts of Moeen Ali, they were able to post a competitive 342.
Ali took the fight to the South African bowlers in the period before and after tea, and ensured that the deficit was reduced to 133 runs. Ali’s 61 wasn’t enough to put the visitors in charge. That said, Ali’s innings may have kept England’s hopes of drawing – and perhaps even winning– this Test alive.
What will encourage England further is the state of South Africa’s attack. Rabada took seven wickets in the first innings, but was forced to bowl several long spells. Morné Morkel was similarly over-worked, while Kyle Abbott sustained a hamstring injury and may not be available to bowl again in this match. South Africa may have just two seamers at their disposal in England’s second innings.
The onus is now on the South African batsmen to take the game away from England. They’ve already lost Dean Elgar, who succumbed to a James Anderson outswinger in the third over of the innings. Stephen Cook and Hashim Amla provided some stability late in the day, and will be looking to set the platform just as they did in the first innings. From there, the more aggressive stroke-makers like AB de Villiers and Quinton de Kock will have a key role to play in setting a target that’s beyond England’s reach.
England won’t mind if this match ends in a draw. They’ve already won the series, and will consider a 2-0 result in the four-game rubber a resounding success.
By contrast, South Africa will be desperate to force a result at Centurion. They will be looking to end their winless streak in the five-day format. A draw or a defeat will stretch their rotten run to 10 games without victory.
This will influence the Proteas’ mindset and tactics on day four. They will also need to bear in mind that their bowling attack might be limited in the fourth innings.
It will require a careful balancing act. If South Africa don’t score enough runs, or if they don’t leave themselves with enough time to bowl England out, they will finish the game as well as the series empty-handed.
SA 1st innings 475 – Quinton de Kock 129 not out, Stephen Cook 115, Hashim Amla 109, Ben Stokes 4-86
England 1st innings 342 – Alastair Cook 76, Joe Root 76, Moeen Ali 61, Kagiso Rabada 7-112
SA 2nd innings 42-1 – Stephen Cook 23 not out, Hashim Amla 16 not out, James Anderson 1-14
South Africa lead by 175 runs