Rarely can the rhythm of a Test match have changed so dramatically from one day to the next. But therein lies the charm, perplexity and mystery of the game, a law quite unto itself. It is what makes it intriguing and perfectly daft all at once.
Consider: at the start of the second day of the Second Test, England – led by Ben Stokes, who took the sportsman’s notion of being in the zone to a different dimension – added 312 runs in 38.5 overs. There was a world record sixth-wicket partnership with Jonny Bairstow of 399.
On the third day, South Africa, who had been 141 for 2 overnight, added another 212 runs in a further 87 overs for the loss of one more wicket.
Hashim Amla, their captain who has been distinctly out of sorts, made 157 not out, adding in each session yesterday 27, 41 and 25. Crucially, he was reprieved twice, before and after lunch. At 353 for 3, South Africa remain 276 runs behind.
The hard-nosed approach was helped by the opposition, who apart from those two clear cut chances going begging were denied at other times when the ball refused to their bidding. On pitches that resemble roads, that is as close to committing a crime that a mere sporting misdemeanour can come.
South Africa’s plan is abundantly clear and there may be nothing that England can do to thwart it. Escape Cape Town with a draw and head for the sanctuary of the Wanderers in Johannesburg, where they lose occasionally but where the home fans are so intimidating that visiting teams must sometimes fear that they will be eaten alive.
They might consider the last match of the series in Centurion something of a banker since they have lost there only twice at 19 times of asking – and one of those was the infamous leather jacket affair which was reduced on the last day to a one-innings affair. There is still work to do here but since only nine wickets have fallen on the first three days, only seven of them to bowlers, it might be heading only one way.
South Africa made their opponents work their fingers to the bone for every possible breakthrough. England responded by spurning these precious opportunities when they arrived, like turning down the offer of gold bullion.
On this surface, not entirely without life but in wonderful order for batting, it was crucial that every half-chance was taken. Instead England were careless and if they might have been tempted to rue their fortune – with some lapses not being punished by failing to go to hand, or missing the bat – it would have been a mistake.
The day was more than four hours old when the solitary wicket fell.
Amla and De Villiers had put on 183 for the third wicket, their highest partnership in the 84 Tests they have played together. Of the two, Amla was by some distance the most fluent. Despite some typically rumbustious strokes there was barely a moment when De Villiers looked settled from the first over of the day.
It was Amla, however, who benefited twice from England’s fielding indiscretions. On 76, he pushed at Joe Root’s first ball of the innings and was dropped by James Anderson at slip. It went quickly but it went straight. Root had dropped De Villiers off Anderson the previous evening when he was only on five. Reciprocation might have had a certain symmetry but it was most unhelpful.
On 120, seven overs before tea, Amla was put down, perhaps even more culpably by Nick Compton at point. The cut shot was to Compton’s left but he had an unimpeded view of it and managed to put both hands on the ball as it swerved to his left. Compton has many virtues as an international cricketer but his fielding is not among them. Both he and Alex Hales seem like throwbacks to 40 or 50 years ago, when diving in the outfield was not quite the done thing.
This was, of course, bad enough for England but their misfortunes were compounded by De Villiers’ skittish batting, which never altered much all day. In the opening exchanges he almost offered catches to point and mid-wicket with uncontrolled shots and a miscued drive might or might not have looped off his boot towards the bowler, Steven Finn, who could not make up the ground.
When De Villiers was 85, having shortly before edged Finn with the second new ball wide of the slip cordon, he was given out lbw to Stokes. Unfortunately for England, the ball had marginally grazed De Villiers’ bat on its way to the pad and his review was rightly upheld.
By the time Finn began to bowl the 94th over, 152 overs had elapsed during which only three wickets had fallen, only one of them to a bowler. Against that backdrop, Finn might have dropped in a short ball to De Villiers much more in hope than expectation.
But De Villiers pulled it in the air slightly above Anderson’s head at mid-wicket. For one dreadful moment, it appeared as though Anderson had not made clean contact, but he was merely parrying the ball to bring it under his control and held it smoothly as it came down.
Much relief all round and the immediate feeling sprang that if England could manage another wicket quickly they might send a shudder through their rivals. South Africa, were still 361 runs adrift at that stage. There was digging in still to do and then some.
Faf du Plessis, another in their litany of out-of-form blockers, edged his first ball wide of the slip cordon. He was beaten by Finn a time or two soon after but he gradually and visibly settled. One leading edge off Anderson fell narrowly short of Finn.
In desperation, England turned to the (very) occasional off spin of Hales, which has not yielded a first-class wicket for seven years.
But by the close, Du Plessis had his first 50 in 12 innings, the fourth wicket had put on a laborious 85, the rate was below three runs an over and you could only pine for Stokes and Jonny Bairstow of so long ago.
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