It has been a match that has ever so often veered on the verge of becoming one-sided. Especially so after Joe Root’s chance-laced masterclass yesterday.
Staring at 357 for 5 at the end of the first day, the Protean eleven, shorn of sheen due to the absence of three major stars, seemed to have their lack of experience and depth brutally exposed by the undeniable strength of the hosts. There was every possibility of the Test becoming a non-contest.
The possibility still exists, especially after Theunis de Bruyn committed the cardinal error of pushing away from the body with just minutes to go from the close of the day’s play. Indeed, 214 for 5 in response to 458 is not really a scorecard that reads favourably for the visitors.
Yet, it was an encouraging day in many respects.
The rudderless side had been plundered for runs in the third session of the first day, with 175 runs scored in quick time, of which Root smashed 105. After that, the sense of purpose the bowling attack showed on the second morning was more than encouraging. And in the final session, the resistance of two young batsmen was both refreshing and promising.
In the morning, Root, having essayed a masterpiece through a bad cold yesterday, was dismissed after the addition of just six to his score. Two balls later Morkel had Liam Dawson leg before for a duck.
Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad, the former continuing the form he had showed the previous afternoon and the latter flaying his bat at everything with gay abandon, added 46 in quick time before it was Rabada’s turn to pick two wickets in three balls. Moeen was castled off one that came back to sneak past his drive and Mark Wood was trapped leg before.
413 for 9 was a brilliant comeback from the travails of the previous day. Unfortunately, Broad and James Anderson lived by the sword, and while they did not last too long they did so fruitfully enough to add 45 in 4.3 overs. Broad slammed 57 in 47 balls, with 8 fours and 2 sixes, the vast majority of them not quite where he intended. However, when he hooked Morkel twice in succession and the ball landed deep into the Grand Stand each time, it was exhilarating stuff.
Hence, in spite of all the good work by the bowlers, by the time Morkel got Anderson to edge an expansive drive, the score stood at 468. Quite a recovery that from 76 for 4, and, unless something extraordinary takes place, a total that takes possibilities of defeat out of the equation. But yet another way of looking at it was a spirited South African fightback on the second morning.
When the visitors began their innings, once again the tale vacillated between resistance and surrender. The 33-year-old debutant Heino Kuhn was unlucky to receive a good ball early in the innings, but the gutsy Dean Elgar and the experienced Hashim Amla fought back. Yet, even as the two etched a 72-run association, one could not help feeling that one wicket was all that mattered. The non-existent depth was always a cause of the alarm, the enormous hollows left in the line-up by the absence of AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis.
And when Amla played back to Moeen and missed the off-break, the run of play that followed underlined the apprehensions. Elgar went, caught bat-pad, giving Moeen his 100th Test wicket. Duminy, still short of the standards of a regular Test batsman, had Broad pinging his back pad. At 104 for 4, a surrender was yet again in the offing.
That was the juncture when we saw the most heartening partnership as far as South Africa is concerned. Temba Bavuma and de Bruyn are not really names have the hearts of the cricket fans heaving with hope. However, the fightback after tea that this pair essayed was a testimony to the amount of spirit in the South African camp, trying desperately to compensate for the lack of substance. Bavuma particularly was more than impressive, playing percentage cricket, choosing his moments to attack with precision, cutting and driving with flair. De Bruyn did have some slices of luck, being all but bowled by Moeen and surviving a close call against Wood. But for a man in just his second Test, the application and temperament on display were admirable.
Quentin de Kok is yet to bat, and the contest element in the match is not yet over. With Anderson removing de Bruyn just before close of play, England are definitely on top, but the 99-run association by the low-key duo was definitely reassuring for the tourists.
The will to fight is there, and if they can get a partnership going on the third morning this may yet turn out to be an exciting tussle.