There is no greater joy in sports than watching the underdog turn the tables on the frontrunners.
Throughout this series, South Africa have shown signs of vulnerability. The sparkle of Quentin de Kock and the fizz of Vernon Philander, along with the stability of Hashim Amla had enabled them to reach a fighting total of 309 for 6 at the end of the first day’s play. However, there were plenty of suggestions of upcoming struggle, not least because of the rather thin bowling line up.
And today, when Jimmy Anderson cleaned up the tail with surgical finesse, capturing 4 for 4 in 20 balls, it looked that they were in for another back to the wall affair.
The only way for them to get competitive was for all the resources to fire. The seasoned duo of Philander and Morne Morkel had to do their bit, and the rest of the bowling, amounting to a mere 11 Tests between them, had to chip in as well.
What did follow was almost exactly that.
Philander removed Alastair Cook courtesy a review, Morkel got Keaton Jennings the very next ball. The inroads were made. It was 3 for 2, and the Proteans were on fire.
But the young leader in Joe Root strode out to do battle with his own brand of dazzle. 14 for 2, and Philander was struck for three boundaries in an over. The spark kindled Gary Ballance too, who responded with three boundaries off four balls. England were not struggling as much as two quick wickets would generally suggest, they were racing along.
Chris Morris was introduced, Root hammered him to the point fence and then guided him to third man off the first two deliveries. Duanne Olivier came on, and Root clipped him off his legs for four. Exhilarating stuff. Good balls disappeared. Olivier was pulled and then sent streakily off the edge for four.
Last over before lunch, Faf du Plessis called upon Keshav Maharaj. Root whipped him to backward of square for another boundary. England 85 for 2 at the break. Root was 52 off just 43 balls. The early setbacks had been overcome. The captain was playing a blinder … yet again.
And then du Plessis marshalled his resource with a degree of expertise that makes his captaincy absolutely top-notch. Morkel and Philander were back immediately after the break. No easy post-lunch start for the batsmen. And Philander bowled a heavy-footed Ballance off his first delivery.
That was not the only bit of brilliance in du Plessis’s captaincy. First of all, South Africa looked a different team. They were charged up, their spirit infectious, the spring in step palpable. Alongside there were tactical masterstrokes as well.
Root was not in any mood to hand back the initiative. Philander was pulled for four, a breathtaking stroke. Morkel was steered with control, and then glanced to fine leg boundary. Johnny Bairstow also took a boundary off Morkel. But du Plessis persisted with the giraffe.
And the towering paceman got the big one, in the seventh over of his extended post-lunch spell. Root drove at one just outside off, and the edge was lapped up by de Kock. 78 off 75 balls, a sublime innings. But the job was only half-done as he walked back.
Bairstow took up the fight as Ben Stokes joined him at the other end. A streaky boundary off Morkel and then two drives drilled off a rather expensive Olivier.
But, Du Plessis was in the act again. Not one to let the initiative slip. Double change affected. Philander from one end. Keshav Maharaj from the other.
Inspired move. By the time it was Tea, Maharaj had spun out both Stokes and Bairstow. The left-arm spinner kept a tight line and gave the ball a fair amount of rip. Stokes was done in by the spin and bounce, Bairstow by the extra drift followed by turn. Big wickets and Maharaj showed a knack of picking them when required.
England struggled at 184 for 6 at Tea. The game was alive. The spinner had demonstrated his penchant for picking up the big wickets when needed.
But there was Moeen Ali yet. And Liam Dawson and Stuart Broad in the late order. England bat long and often do it stubbornly.
After the break, with another canny change, and du Plessis opened with Maharaj and Morris.
Five overs of lull. And then Morris got Moeen and Broad off successive deliveries. The second one particularly pleasing, with Broad on the receiving side of a leg-before decision for which the bowler hardly bothered appealing, preferring to go through celebratory motions. Does not feel that swell, does it Stuart?
The all-rounder Morris had scored a vital 36. He had followed that up by chipping in with two vital wickets. The underdog get on top if every player pulls his weight. And the man from Pretoria had certainly pulled his and then some more.
Not that he bowled particularly well. A little too short on occasions, a bit too wide quite often, he was way less potent than Philander and Morkel. However, he did get the important low order scalps.
Wickets were falling in heaps now. Maharaj got Dawson top edging a sweep to square leg in the very next over. Three wickets at the same score. 199 for 9. For the second time in the series, since that brilliant first session at Lord’s, Proteans were really on top.
Six runs later, the innings was over. Morris had bounced Mark Wood out, a dolly to the second slip. 205 all out. 130-run lead for the tourists.
Morkel and Philander had picked two each. Maharaj and Morris three apiece. Whatever move du Plessis had set in motion had come off. The match and the series had come alive.
But there was further work to be done. Heino Kuhn has been rather short of the requirements at this level, and the class of Anderson now proved rather too demanding for him. But not before the home side, in their zeal to get an early breakthrough, had wasted a review on him.
England thus captured five wickets in the day, across two innings, all falling to Anderson.
Amla, serene, calm, and Dean Elgar, gutsy, combative, took over and played till close. Runs were added, with control, mixed once in a while with panache.
By the end of the day South Africa are ahead by 205 runs, and with the Trent Bridge wicket having a track record of deteriorating, it does look like a bleak couple of days ahead for England.
The underdogs have turned it around, and the interest quotient in the series has been boosted up because of that.