How difficult is it for a team to go into the final Test of a series without the service of their premier bowler? Well, it’s akin to going on a battle without the strongest weapon. South Africa went into the final game of the four-match Test series without Vernon Philander. After an emphatic win at The Oval, England were leading the series 2-1 while the onus of making a comeback was on the visiting side. Philander has been the leader of the pack and undoubtedly the best red ball bowler. His illness during the third Test cost South Africa heavily and the bowler was also hospitalised.
Problems increased for South Africa when both, Philander and Chris Morris were ruled out of the final Test due to back troubles and the pace attack lacked fire. Remember, this is supposed to be a do-or-die game for South Africa and need to win this at any cost. To add to their woes, they haven’t won an away Test without the services of Philander since November 2011. Not many gave South Africa a chance and when England got it right at the toss and opted to bat, the challenge was on.
Keaton Jennings would have been happy to see Philander not making the cut as the wily bowler has got the better of him on three occasions in six innings. But, he could hardly make any impact as his poor run continued. Despite getting a reprieve in the very second over, where Kagiso Rabada dropped him off his own bowling, Jennings managed just 17 runs. Duanne Olivier induced an outside edge off a length ball, which moved away from him and drew the first blood. Tom Westley and Alastair Cook weathered the early storm and did well in ensuring England didn’t lose another wicket till Lunch.
Problems starting increasing for South Africa as they needed wickets but Cook and Westley looked determined. Keshav Maharaj was doing a fine job just before he left the field for getting some treatment for his hamstring after bowling only a couple of overs. Tensions only kept increasing in the South African dug-out as they were running out of options. But moments later, Maharaj was back on the field and all this happened before Lunch.
At 92 for 1, England were in total command with Cook cruising towards his fifty. Maharaj had bowled four maidens out of seven overs and was troubling Cook. He finally reaped fruits for his hard work in the eighth over, when Cook edged one to Quinton de Kock and Maharaj provided the much-needed breakthrough. Tom Westley got another promising start but failed to convert. Few overs later, De Kock cupped a ripper behind the stumps to cut short Westley’s innings on 29.
Within a span of few overs, momentum shifted from England to South Africa. England lost two wickets without adding a run and were now struggling at 92 for 3. English skipper Joe Root took guard and starting doing what he does the best – sailing English ship out of choppy waters. Dawid Malan was in desperate need of a big innings under his belt and this was a perfect opportunity but fell prey to Morkel’s persistence. At 144 for 4, South African fans would have been pretty much satisfied by their bowling performance but the job was yet to be finished. South Africa won the second session but needed more.
Joe Root got a fifty and was lucky to have been given a life on 40, when a fine edge sneaked between De Kock and Amla. But, Olivier did well in trapping the skipper leg before on 52 and broke the spine of English batting. Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow were stitching a crucial partnership when Rabada struck. Just when the stumps was around the corner, Rabada produced a peach of a delivery to get rid of Stokes. At stumps, South Africa had the English tail open and the opportunity was there to be grabbed.
On the next morning, England kept losing wickets at regular intervals and were reduced to 312 for 9. Toby Roland-Jones, Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad walked back early and more importantly, Bairstow was running out of partners. At 312 for 9, South Africa had done a commendable job in the absence of their premier bowler and things would have been pretty much done and dusted for England had De Kock not dropped Bairstow on 53. This drop cost South Africa 46 runs and another four were added by James Anderson. England were eventually bundled out for 362 but the 50 runs made a huge difference and will hurt South Africa massively in the game.
Rabada ended up with four scalps in his basket while Morne Morkel was outstanding with the ball for two. Duanne Olivier and Maharaj had two wickets apiece. It was an all-round performance by the South African bowlers, who rose to the occasion in adversity. They would have definitely been in a better position had all the catches been cupped. South Africa are trailing by 142 runs in the first innings at Stumps on Day 2 and a big challenge is lying ahead of their bowlers when they take the field.
So far, South African bowlers have shown great character but will have to bring their best game out and try to dismantle England as early as possible to give themselves a winning chance. Their fielders need to show extra support and hang on to catches as they win matches. Their batting has struggled to get going and a lot will now depend in how their bowling fares in the second innings. They are under the pump but the possibility of bouncing back is always there.