Three times during the evening session, Moeen Ali swung his bat in a fascinating picture of flamboyance. Even as Keshav Maharaj kept wondering about the meaning of it all, thrice the ball soared high and handsome and sailed into the crowd. Well, not quite. Once it landed in the English balcony where a delighted Johnny Bairstow caught it with a beaming smile on his face.
On a wicket of dicey bounce and help for all kinds of bowlers, the nonchalance with which Moeen struck those two blows and the ease with which he cleared the boundary was a defining feature of the match and, to a great extent, the series.
Moeen comes in at No 8, after the regular batsmen, after the all-rounder Ben Stokes and wicket-keeper batsman Bairstow. The only corresponding counterpart in the South African lower order who comes remotely close in quality of batsmanship is Vernon Philander, and he is sitting out with an injury.
England’s lower order is a dream for any team. And that has been the major differentiating factor in this series.
Both the teams suffer from a rather shaky top order. The gaps are quite blatantly yawning for all to see. Especially, the tales of Heino Kuhn and Keaton Jennings have been constructed along similarly sorrowful lines. It is perhaps a good moment to add that the way Dawid Malan failed again today underlines that, in spite of the euphoria of being in a supremely strong position in the Test and the series, there remain plenty of problems for England to sort out.
But, having said that, the class and the consistency lent by Joe Root and the solidity that emanates from Alastair Cook, have not really been countered by the likes of Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis in these Tests. England have been ahead in that quarter, even if not by much.
Similarly, the James Anderson-Stuart Broad combination, now backed by the incredible start to the career of Toby Roland-Jones, have managed to stay a trifle ahead of the Morkel-Rabada-Philander trio, helped along by the recurrent injury problems to the last named.
However, it is the enormous depth in the lower order batsmanship that has been a big, big difference. Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen are a formidable trio at 6,7 and 8. And add to that the more than useful willows of Toby Roland-Jones and Stuart Broad at 9 and 10, and that is a nightmare for any bowling line up.
Some numbers do point out exactly how much this lower order brilliance matters.
In this series, the partnership for the top five English wickets have amounted to 1292 runs at 32.30. It is ahead of the 1079 runs at 30.82 managed by their South African counterparts, but not by a really significant amount.
However, the gap between the lower order performances of the two sides is enormous.
The partnerships for the wickets 6 to 10 have got the Englishmen 989 runs at 27.47. In contrast, the South Africans have managed 732 at 21.52. The numbers are actually impressive for the Proteans, but way inferior in the context of the series.
That is a huge gap, perhaps the defining one of the series.
There have been one hundred and four fifty plus partnerships for the last five wickets for England in the four Tests. The Protean late order has been valiant as well, but they have managed just three fifty run associations.
Even today, after conceding a big lead, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and a significantly improved Duanne Olivier bowled their hearts out. The wicket behaved in an increasingly macabre manner, the fourth English wicket fell for 79, and South Africa clawed somewhat back into the game. Then Root, who had been essaying another little gem, and the always dangerous Stokes, fell in quick succession to Olivier. The England skipper was dismissed off a ball that hardly rose from the wicket. At that moment there was enough reason for the visitors to feel optimistic.
But since then 90 more runs have been added, much of that due to the thrilling collaboration between Moeen and Roland-Jones. The Proteans are all but out of the game.
Moeen’s has been an extraordinary innings, a magnificent example of counter attack after a not-too-promising start. He has stepped out and lofted the ball, also stepped back and across and pulled bouncers with equal ease. But his heroics notwithstanding, there is no way of overlooking that the wicket has become progressively worse. And even if the last two English wickets topple as soon as the match resumes on the morrow after this rain-shortened day, the task facing the South Africans is already a near-impossible one.
It will be a miracle if they manage to come back into the match, and judging by the body language of a side suffering from the wear and tear of a difficult tour, it is an unlikely scenario.