South Africa — In the opening fifteen minutes of play on Sunday, South Africa’s bowlers blew the door off its hinges after having broken it open on Saturday. An opportunity appeared out of nowhere. Sadly, the Proteas batsmen were unable to capitalize on that opportunity.
The ball was moving about in challenging conditions, and England’s bowlers made good use of that advantage. Using all the good fortune that had left them on the third day, Dean Elgar and Sarel Erwee batted valiantly. Although it was often unsightly, the English bowlers found it to be both effective and annoying.
The duo erased the lead the English had built up after the first innings by recording the Proteas’ only fourth half-century partnership in the series—the second they had shared after Lord’s.
The tension in the visiting dressing room was then restored when Ben Stokes, who is so often the Proteas’ downfall, snapped out Erwee with only his third delivery, 15 minutes before lunch.
After the interval, Elgar was given out lbw by Niton Menon off Stuart Broad for 36, which marked the day’s turning point. The ball would have easily missed the leg stump, according to television replays, but the South African skipper chose not to review. It’s simple to argue after the fact that he should have reviewed, but South African batters’ heads are so clouded these days that common sense has vanished recently.
That wicket, with the South African total on 83/1, started a mini-collapse with Elgar, Keegan Petersen — falling to another loose stroke — and Ryan Rickelton all dismissed within six overs for the addition of just 12 runs.
What to do then?
Stoic resistance was the method chosen by Khaya Zondo and Wiaan Mulder. That was in one sense an understandable approach. They’re both playing their first match of the series and they’re still relatively new to Test cricket. Maybe they thought they could have made England’s bowlers tired, maybe it would have knocked the hardness out of the ball and time spent at the crease on a reasonably warm day may have deadened the pitch. What their 25-run partnership in 14 overs did, was take the game nowhere as far as the Proteas were concerned and it allowed England to assert control, so that by the time they’d managed to sneak one through the defences, there was little damage on the scoreboard.
Mulder chopped one onto his stumps from Ollie Robinson that seamed back into him, while Zondo — who was starting to look good — got tangled up against another searing in-ducker and was trapped lbw for 16.
South Africa’s lead at that point was a measly 80 and asking the lower order to bail them out of trouble again, was too much. Stokes, bowling on one leg, returned to pick up two wickets, and England had a target of 130 to knock off.
Alex Lees was dropped by Marco Jansen — who earlier in the day had registered a maiden Test five wicket haul — off the first ball bowled by Kagiso Rabada, robbing South Africa of any chance of causing some nerves to flutter in the England dressing room.
The two, still under pressure, England openers, then let rip with some powerful drives and good running between the wickets to take the hosts within touching distance of victory, until the umpires decided the light wasn’t good enough for play to be concluded. The look of disbelief on Stokes’ face perfectly encapsulated the absurdity of the whole thing.
This was a series that South Africa could have won. They will look back and perhaps regret overthinking their selection strategy at Old Trafford that saw them omit Jansen. However, that is a minor issue. The bigger one is the batting. South Africa have failed to adhere to even the basic aspects of that discipline and it has cost them a series.
England must score 33 runs on Monday morning, to win the series.