South Africa still have a bit of work to do before they can crack open the beers to celebrate a Test series victory in New Zealand.
The Proteas are 1-0 up in the three-match series and with two days to go in Hamilton, a draw seems the most obvious result. The bookies agree, with 4-10 being offered for that eventuality, 25-10 for a New Zealand win and 10-1 for a South African victory.
However, despite New Zealand being only seven runs ahead of South Africa’s first innings 314, with Kane Williamson putting on a masterclass to finish unbeaten on 148, it’s the hosts who will feel they have the faintest chance of squaring things.
Batting hasn’t been easy against the new ball, and the pitch still had plenty of bounce and carry at the end of day three, while there is movement in the air and off the seam to make things uncomfortable for the batsmen. And given that the Proteas’ top-order hasn’t fired properly, this game is anything but over right now, weather permitting. But the forecast isn’t great.
The day belonged to New Zealand, who resumed on 67-0 and 214 runs still behind, although the scoreboard isn’t a true reflection of the way the South Africans stuck to their guns in the field. This could have got messy had the seamers not toiled long and hard, with the spinners being largely ineffective.
And, in a show of intent, with the umpires telling Faf du Plessis late in the day that he could only bowl the spinners as the light faded, Du Plessis did just that in the search of a fifth wicket. He could have easily walked off the field, shortening the odds for a draw even more. Again, it showed that the captain’s mindset is more attacking than defensive – and that’s a real positive for the way he approaches Test cricket.
The Proteas bowlers toiled wicketless for 58 overs as Jeet Ravel (88 runs made in 399 minutes) and the imperious Williamson put on 190 runs for the second wicket, before the opener was caught quite brilliantly by Quinton de Kock launching himself to the right after an inside edge off the tireless Morne Morkel.
The ball could easily have gone for a boundary, but the catch was not only a sign of his athleticism, but of De Kock’s levels of concentration which could so easily have been waning at that stage.
Kagiso Rabada also ran in hard for most of the day and was rewarded for a largely back-of-a-length approach, with two wickets in successive deliveries to remove Neil Broom and Henry Nicholls, as New Zealand slid from 273-1 to 293-4 in the final session.
With Keshav Maharaj – the leading wicket-taker across both sides in the series so far – unable to claim a scalp in his 29 overs, it was left to the seamers to try and break the Ravel-Williamson partnership. Du Plessis has rotated his three seamers well all series and spread the workload, with Rabada sending down 87 overs, Vernon Philander 79 and Morkel 77.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the series has been the fact that while Morkel has nine wickets and Rabada seven, Philander has only two, and while his economy rate has again been miserly, those two wickets have come at an average of 91.50. One would have expected more from him under these conditions.
He thought he had the scalp of Mitchell Santner late in the day, uprooting his off stump, only to be called for a no-ball, while DRS showed that he had the same batsman plumb lbw, but the South Africans didn’t call for the review. So, admittedly, Lady Luck hasn’t sat perched on his shoulder.
Still, while Williamson purred to his 17th Test century – equalling the New Zealand record of Martin Crowe, and becoming the fastest Kiwi to reach 5,000 Test runs in the process – the Proteas must have thought that once they removed the solid Ravel, the door at one end was open.
So it proved to be, with that late rattle of wickets and the bowlers still running in hard.
If, and it’s a big if, the weather doesn’t spoil things, then day four is set up nicely. Get Williamson early and the Proteas will think they could still limit the deficit to around 60, but behind they will be.
One can’t see them winning this Test from here because they will look to bat long enough to take victory away from New Zealand. But if the hosts can score quickly, around 3.5 or 4 to the over, and get 150 runs ahead midway through the second session, there will still be some chewing of fingernails in the Proteas dressing room.
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