The match was already all but over by the time Keshav Maharaj bowled to Moeen Ali. Much before that, Chris Morris had practically removed any possibility of English resistance with two fascinatingly diverse deliveries. One that pitched right up, moved past the broad blade of Joe Root and uprooted the off-stump of the young skipper. And the other that pitched short, hurried into Alastair Cook and induced the veteran pro into an ungainly attempted pull that flew off the glove and was swooped up by a flying Quentin de Kock. Those two blows had knocked all the fight out of England. Even before that two excellent pitched up deliveries from Vernon Philander had opened up the gaping hole that became bigger and bigger with each passing minute.
However, it was the Moeen dismissal that characterised everything that went on in the match in the few hours of the fourth day.
The fielder, Heino Kuhn had just been placed by Faf du Plessis in the precise position in front of the square leg umpire. One wonders whether Moeen had looked around to see the field set for him. He went down on his knees for the compulsive sweep stroke. The ball flew off the top edge straight into Kuhn’s hands. 122 for 6. In precisely 23 balls after that, the nightmarish tale was over.
That captured the day in a nutshell. When everything du Plessis planned was executed with perfection by the South African bowlers, and they were helped along in no small measure by the reckless Englishmen. By this time in the series, the Proteans seem to have been forged, by their troubles in the previous Test and the repair-work they have painstakingly carried out in this match, into a feisty and formidable fighting unit. At the same time, England have lost the plot altogether.
How else does one explain the reckless lofted drive of Johnny Bairstow that went straight into the hands of Morris off Maharaj? Philander and Morris had struck with excellent deliveries. But by the time the late order, much vaunted late order one may add, were in, all Maharaj had to do was to keep it in the square and allow the suicidal tendencies of the Englishmen to do the rest.
Ben Stokes pushed one back to Philander, rather half-heartedly by the look of it. Following this Stuart Broad slogged Maharaj straight to deep midwicket. It was as if England had undertaken a special responsibility to lose wickets in a manner ensuring that none of the South African fielders had to move.
Only Cook, who had been both classy and positive during his 42, showed some inclination of sticking it out. The rest of the men were either out of depth or out of patience.
South Africa go into the third Test with plenty of gains from this Test. Their batsmen have demonstrated the temperament that was once associated with Test cricket, the new ball bowlers have been excellent and incisive, Morris has pulled his weight and more with both bat and ball, Maharaj has been both accurate and successful. Philander, who came into this Test under an injury scare, walked away with the Man of the Match award, for his 54 and 42 along with five wickets in the match. This excellent modern-day all-rounder has stepped up to deliver as the South Africans have struggled with the absence of Dale Steyn and the one-Test suspension of Kagiso Rabada. Now that Rabada will be back, presumably for Duanne Olivier, it will add a sharper edge to their fast improving attack.
At the same time, England have some serious thinking to do. Remove Cook and Root, and plenty of questionable gaps in the batting line up are uncovered. Keaton Jennings has not come off in the last four innings, Gary Ballance has not been able to convert his starts. Bairstow bats at No 5, Stokes at 6 and Moeen at 7, which gives the impression of a deep batting line up but disguises the reality that specialist batsmen end with the top four and among them two are not performing. It is the same malaise that had followed England during the tour of India. In home conditions, one had expected the ploy to work better, but the Trent Bridge Test does show that there is no alternative for the specialists in the longest format of the game.
While du Plessis has been extremely impressive, with both the bat and the reins, Root has made his mistakes. The most glaring fault was probably under using the spin duo in the second South African innings. He is new in his role and will definitely learn with time, but it is important for England that this learning curve develops fast. The following Test does not take place for nine days, and it will be an excellent period for England to regroup.
The series has definitely come alive. But England do need to iron out the worrisome wrinkles so apparent in the side to prevent the contests from becoming one sided. Strange, since after the Lord’s Test it had seemed that it would be a one sided series in their favour.
They better carry out the repairs fast because the visitors have really exceeded expectations in turning things around.