After his side’s 189-run defeat in Cape Town, Proteas captain Faf du Plessis praised the fighting spirit of his doomed men.
He championed their bravery in the face of an English onslaught and their tenacity in refusing to accept when they’re beat.
The history books might reflect a crushing loss, but like the ancient battle at Thermopylae or the Allied retreat at Dunkirk during the Second World War, the epic rearguard at Newlands would be used to spurn future glories. Jos Buttler’s tirade directed at Vernon Philander in the closing stages helped South Africa reach a moral high ground.
But history is written by the victors and Thermopylae and Dunkirk are remembered as they are because they preceded famous triumphs. The Greeks got their revenge by spanking the Persians at Marathon and British troops returned to help liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny.
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Cape Town’s fight would only be celebrated if it translated into improved performances in Port Elizabeth. Du Plessis promised it would. Fast bowler Anrich Nortje said that Buttler’s actions had helped ‘get the blood flowing’ inside the camp. Before the series started, coach Mark Boucher warned of the dangers of a wounded buffalo in Africa.
That talk now looks hollow. England have assumed a commanding position with a lead of 439 after posting 499-9 declared and then grabbing the wickets of Pieter Malan and Zubayr Hamza in the dying light of day two.
Problems began on Thursday morning when Du Plessis lost his sixth consecutive toss and was asked to bowl first on a pitch with less bumps than the landing strip at Port Elizabeth International.
The bounce of a coin is beyond the control of captan and coach, but team selection is not. Boucher’s appointment, as well as that of Graeme Smith as director of cricket and Jacques Kallis as batting coach, implied that sound cricket logic, rather than emotion, would govern the game in South Africa. Let the race-baiters and snowflakes complain about politics. These legendary Proteas were at the helm and had narrowed their sights on winning matches.
Why then was Vernon Philander selected for this match? Bowling coach Charl Langeveldt acknowledged that veteran bowler he would be largely ineffective on the St George’s Park surface. It is hard to look past his imminent retirement – after the fourth match in Johannesburg next week – as a contributing factor for his inclusion.
Dwaine Pretorius should have played instead. His extra 10cm in height would have extracted what little life was lurking beneath that barren wasteland, and his ability to bowl cutters with an older ball would have been useful.
Some will rightly point to Philander’s eye-watering Test record and to his numbers on this ground – 16 wickets from five matches at 23.12 – as justification for his selection over Pretorius, but that does not explain what came next when Du Plessis was handed a brand-new Kookaburra ball.
Rather than toss it to Kagiso Rabada or Nortje, Du Plesss went for the comparatively pedestrian pace offered by Philander and Dane Paterson. Both bowled tight, disciplined lines and made the English openers play, but they did not trouble either Domnic Sibley or Zak Crawley. The toothlessness of the plan was exemplified by the fact that England navigated the first session of a Test without losing a wicket for the first time since 2011.
Why not bowl Rabada or Nortje alongside one of the more disciplined, slower seamers? The decision surprised Crawley, the 21-year-old playing his third Test who earned his place in the side facing bowlers of a similar pace to Philander and Paterson but on much tougher decks.
What he hasn’t faced too often is aggressive, searing pace sent down from a dizzying height and rocketing around his larynx. He doesn’t face that in his home of Kent and, inexplicably, he didn’t face that here in Port Elizabeth.
South Africa failed to match the intensity of their words with their actions, but they did turn things around by the second session on day one. When Joe Root’s off-stump was knocked over by Rabada, it felt like a turning point with England faltering at 148-4.
Rabada felt it too. Like an axe-wielding warrior of a bygone age, the menacing fast bowler revelled in his conquest. As the bails were cartwheeling back to earth, Rabada ran directly towards Root, stopped within touching distance and let out an almighty roar.
Your opinion, much like mine, doesn’t count for much here. It’s irrelevant if you think Rabada was too close to Root or not, or if the celebration crossed a line in any way. What matters is that match referee Andy Pycroft thought it had and proposed a sanction of one demerit point and a 15% match fee fine.
As a result, Rabada will not play the final Test at the Wanderers. This was the fourth demerit he has picked up in two years and he has accepted his sanction.
Rabada knew what he was doing. Or should have done. His recklessness could cost South Africa a Test series. This is not the fight that Du Plessis or Boucher asked for. This was akin to a thuggish bar brawler throwing wild haymakers when what South Africa needed was a clinical precision punch.
That is what Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope provided. Both began the day in their thirties. Both ended it with hundreds to their name. Stokes was imperious, slog-sweeping Keshav Maharaj as if receiving throwdowns. Pope was impish, reverse paddling Rabada and flicking the ball all around the ground. ‘This is how you fight on a cricket field’, he seemed to say. ‘I’ll let my bat do the talking.’
South African willows must find their articulacy for at least the duration of Saturday. Dean Elgar has begun the utterances of a classic, but is still clearing his throat on 32. He’ll have nightwatchman Arnich Nortje for company in the morning.
Speaking after the day’s play, Boucher echoed the sentiments that have come before. He spoke of fight and spirit and desire, but conceded his players had let themselves down in their skills execution.
The time for smack talk is over. It is the deed, not the word, that must lead the fight from here.
Photo: Gallo Images