It was masterly execution. The South Africans had a plan, and they stuck to it all day.
By the end of it, the hosts had been batted out of the game. Miracles do take place in cricket, but they are called miracles for a reason. They are extremely rare. And unless something unforeseen takes place during the course of the next day or two, the Englishmen will be fighting a battle they are almost certain to lose.
Staring at the huge, huge target of 474, the English openers did manage to survive the day. However, not before Alastair Cook had been declared leg before to Morne Morkel and had to invoke a review to overturn the decision.
The task in front of England is uphill with a hitherto unconquered summit. The highest total chased down at Trent Bridge is 190 runs less, the 284 scored by England in the process of achieving the 2004 victory over New Zealand. And the wicket is showing signs and symptoms of wear and tear with variable bounce. Even the English spinners, perhaps underused by Joe Root, found turn when they rolled their arms over. Moeen Ali, used for just 16 overs, picked up 4 wickets. Keshav Maharaj must have itching fingers at the prospect of bowling on this track during the last two days.
In short, it was the second fantastic day for South Africa in succession. Largely outplayed at Lord’s and unconvincing on the first day here at Trent Bridge, they have fought every inch to not only get back in the series but to also shuffle the positions of the favourites and the underdogs.
For five hours, the visitors worked on tightening the screws they had inserted the day before. There was hardly any attempt at heroics or unnecessary flourish. With the 130-run advantage and the excellent start managed on the previous evening, they knew they were firmly in the driver’s seat. And they pushed on, slow and steady, aware of the time left in the game, making sure that there was no way for England to get back into the fray.
First, it was Hashim Amla, serene, calm, unperturbed by the attack. He did play his strokes, even hit a sublime straight six, but did so only when an opportunity was provided by a poor delivery. He was unlucky not to get his hundred, but it was percentage play all through.
Dean Elgar was not as polished but approached the innings with the same attitude of eschewing risks. Later skipper Faf du Plessis did the same, dipping into the reservoirs of experience, ensuring there was no glimpse of light for the hosts as the Proteans dug their tunnel towards equilibrium in the series.
James Anderson, who had bowled a masterly spell to remove the tail on the second morning, did not find much response from the track. Nor did Stuart Broad on his home ground. Mark Wood was disappointing. The South Africans went steadily forward. Only Quentin de Kock’s low score was a tiny blip in the middle. Amla and Elgar got 80-plus scores, du Plessis patiently proceeded to 63. Even Temba Bavuma, who threw his wicket away just as the second new ball was about to be taken, did play a useful part through his knock of 15.
It was only after the lead had passed 400 that the visitors chanced their arms, mainly through Vernon Philander. He has been a revelation as a lower order batsman. In the first innings, Philander’s timely 54 had pulled South Africa out of the woods after they had slumped to 235 for 6. In this innings he played a thoughtfully crafted innings, taking 20 balls to get off the mark, proceeding to a sedate, useful 30 off 71 balls, and then slogging Moeen for back to back sixes when his team looked for quick runs to get England in before close of play.
Philander’s all-round brilliance has had a lot to do with the improved showing of South Africa. Besides, as required in situations when playing against a side that is pound for pound more accomplished than your own, every man stood up to be counted.
The pressure told on Root too, as the young captain erred by keeping Moeen out of the attack from the 20th to the 64th over of the innings. In fact, there were long stretches without spin. For 17 overs between the 22nd and 39th over he employed only pace and South Africa responded with 58 without losing a wicket. Later, when Amla hit Dawson for 14 runs in an over, Root took spin off for 21 overs. That Moeen got four wickets and Dawson one, of the 9 that fell, makes one wonder why the spinners bowled just 27 of the 104 overs in the innings. The amount of turn in the final session did implant question marks over the captain’s marshalling of the bowling resources.
But then, Root is young and he will learn from the experience. And some of the learning experiences are always unpleasant. This Test looks more than likely to be one of the disagreeable ones for the England skipper.