This Test was heavily loaded in favour of South Africa the moment they went past 250 in their first innings after inexplicably being put in to bat by England’s Joe Root at the toss.
The England captain might have been fooled by historical results at Centurion, where there has been no shortage of runs. South Africa, in 2010, won the toss against India and Graeme Smith put the visitors in, bowled them out for 136 and then promptly ran up 620-4dec in reply as they coasted to an innings victory.
South Africa, batting first at Centurion, have totalled 604-6dec (in 2004), 552-5dec (2014), 481-8dec and 475, the latter two coming as recently as 2016. However, in recent years there have been stark characteristic shifts in the make-up of Test pitches around the country and the bowlers have held sway.
Even when high scores were being piled on, batting on days four and five at Centurion weren’t easy, with days two and three being best with the bat, a strokeplayer’s pitch complemented by an always-fast outfield.
Now, batting is tough from day one, let alone four and five and when Root put South Africa in after winning the toss, the hosts would have been fist-bumping at the call. Even captain Faf du Plessis said that he would have batted first. And despite stumbling to 111-5, once Quinton de Kock and Dwaine Pretorius put on 87 runs in just 18 overs, the scales tilted towards the hosts.
And, England had been weakened by illness that swept through the camp; why did Root keep his off-colour players out in the field when they could have been trying to fully recover by batting first?
When De Kock departed for his match-defining 95 off 128 balls, South Africa were 245-7. The tail wagged enough to get to 284 and as I wrote after the first day’s play, I felt it was enough to be in a winning position without England even having batted. The pitch was already getting inconsistent bounce and had the sun baked the ground in the subsequent days, the cracks in the strip would have widened a lot more than they did and we might not have made it into day four.
As it was, England responded to South Africa’s first innings with their own 181 and faced a 103-run deficit. Game over. And when nightwatchman Anrich Nortje and Rassie van der Dussen put on 91 for the fifth wicket, which fell at 153 in their second innings for an overall lead of 256, the hosts simply made the game safe by ending their innings on 272 leaving England to chase 376 for victory.
In the context of the game and recent Centurion history that was never going to happen, and it didn’t, the visitors being bowled out for 268 before tea was taken on day four. Yet another Test match in South Africa not reaching the fifth day.
This was a clinical job by a rejuvenated Proteas team, unrecognisable from their miserable 3-0 Test drubbing in India. On pitches that aid the fast bowlers they are a bowling juggernaut at home and again it reinforces my opinion that of all the new faces in the coaching set-up under the leadership of Mark Boucher, batting consultant Jacques Kallis has the biggest role to play.
Man of the match deservedly went to De Kock, although I still would love to see him bat at No 4 in the order – as South Africa’s best batsman – and give the gloves to newbie Kyle Verreyne. My opinion doesn’t count, though, and it’s not going to happen anytime soon, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.
Right behind, perhaps even alongside De Kock for that MoM award, for me was Nortje. His brave 40 off 89 balls helped South Africa bat their way to safety, and with the ball he produced important breakthroughs to get rid of Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow in the first innings, and Rory Burns, Root and Jofra Archer in the second.
So, armed with a 1-0 advantage in a four-Test series, South Africa head to Newlands in confident mood. The reset button gets set right now, though, and Root will know he helped the hosts get on the board by winning the toss and bowling first. He won’t make the same mistake on this tour again if he wins the toss in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth or at the Wanderers.
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