It’s the third ball of the 42nd over of South Africa’s second innings. Ben Stokes, the man who has strode across world cricket like a colossus for the past 12 months, digs in with a 140km/h short ball, writes DANIEL GALLAN.
It bites into the Newlands deck and rushes Pieter Malan. The debutant opener, fighting for every one of his 49 runs as if relinquishing his wicket would cause Table Mountain to crack, wears it on his meaty chest. The balls makes an audible thud but Malan is unmoved. Three deliveries later he has reached 50 for the first time as a Test cricketer.
It was around this time that a busking trumpeter on the grass embankment put his lips to his instrument and encouraged the crowd to sing along with his tune.
The tide is high but I’m holdin’ on
I’m gonna be your number one
I’m not the kind of girl who gives up just like that,
It is doubtful that Malan or the rest of the Proteas have given much thought to Blondie during the day’s play, but they have embodied the mantra of the band’s 1967 hit song.
When Malan first took guard around 1:43pm in the afternoon, his team stared up at a target higher than Devil’s Peak: 438. A score South Africans are well acquainted with after Herschelle Gibbs and co did the unthinkable in that most famous of ODIs against Australia in 2006.
But this felt different. This Newlands surface had calmed down from a snake pit hissing on days one and two, but it was hardly the batting paradise that the Wanderers was 14 years ago.
This was James Anderson and Stuart Broad with the new red ball. This was England with five sessions to bowl out a side that had made 300 look like Everest. This was a scenario that needed a hundred from at least one player in a batting unit that managed just four between them last year.
The tide was high. Could they hold on?
For 56 overs stretching across four hours and 11 minutes, they did. Just about.
Malan will resume his herculean effort on Tuesday unbeaten on 63. He’ll have nightwatchman Keshav Maharaj with him on two after losing Dean Elgar for 34 and Zubayr Hamza on 18.
South Africa still need 312 to win the match. That would break the world record for the largest-ever run chase. At 126-2 even a draw would constitute a moral victory. But by showing fight, by clinging on amid the maelstrom of spitting spinners, round-the-wicket bouncers and seaming swingers, the Proteas have restored some pride after a bruising four days where they have been second best.
‘There’s no reason why we can’t bat out the whole day tomorrow,’ said batting coach Jacques Kallis, setting his jaw and puffed his chest out to the gaggle of journalists who wondered if we were on the eve of history. ‘I’ve seen some strange and crazy things happen in this game.’
The day started with violence from English willows. Ben Stokes was ferocious, clattering 72 from just 47 balls. Dom Sibley continued to bat with the grace of a spluttering combine harvester but carried his bat to reach 133 by the time England declared on 391-8 just after lunch.
An eye-watering 157 runs were scored in the first session. 16 more were added in the second before Joe Root decided he’d had enough.
It’s been exactly a year since South Africa last registered an opening stand worth 50 or more. In that time, the first wicket has fallen with an average of 8.71 on the board. If the Proteas had any hope in this contest, something far more substantial was required.
Malan is only playing this match because of an injury to Aiden Markram, but he looked like a man born for the role at the top of a Test batting card. It is, of course, impossible to say how the rest of his career will develop but on the tiny evidence of this one knock, he has the raw ingredients to to succeed at this level.
But the job is not yet done. 90 overs must be bowled or 312 runs scored for South Africa to maintain their lead in this four-match series.
The odds are against them. The tide is high, but they’re holdin’ on.