England stumble as South Africa press for wickets

England 629 for 6 dec and 87 for 4 (Taylor 23*, Stokes 2*) lead South Africa 627 for 7 dec (Amla 201, Bavuma 102*, de Villiers 88, du Plessis 86, Morris 69) by 89 runs
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Joe Root lost his off stump to Chris Morris as England floundered before lunch © Getty Images

Is there any first-innings score where a Test side can feel absolutely safe these days? England’s first-innings declaration at 629 for 6 smacked of impregnability, but they endured a nervous final morning in Cape Town as South Africa took three wickets in the first hour.

By lunch, England were 87 for 4, a lead of 89, with the top four all accounted for and a maximum of 64 overs remaining. The pitch remained sound for a fifth day, but there was light cloud cover around, the breeze had dropped and there was swing around for the first time in the Test.

A draw remained by far the likeliest result, but South Africa, so bereft midway through the second day, had had a restorative time since then and, if they go to the Highveld still 1-0 down in the series, they will go with a new sense of purpose.

It used to be assumed that 400 on first innings made a Test side pretty much impregnable. That assumption, in terms of England’s history at least, was forever destroyed at Adelaide in 2006 when England declared on 551 for 6 only to lose by six wickets after batting meekly against Shane Warne and co on the final day.

Suddenly, even 600-plus looked no guarantee of safety as every member of South Africa’s quartet struck by lunch. England made 71 in the session, batting with enough purpose to stretch the lead, but the dangers were real. Ben Stokes had batted so quickly for his first-innings 258 that the time available seemed to have expanded as a result, a fact that Hashim Amla, in particular, had used to his advantage in South Africa’s reply.

Alastair Cook departed in the second over of the morning, falling to a leg-side push to the wicketkeeper, not for the first time, as Kagiso Rabada attacked his pads. Alex Hales followed in the next over, an unconvincing push away from his body at Morne Morkel, and a wonderful catch by Chris Morris at third slip.

Morris has taken two slip catches in this Test that will not be bettered all year – Cook in the first innings, flinging himself low to his left, now equally razor-sharp reflexes to his right to hold another stunning low catch. He can be happy with his Test debut, and if Dale Steyn is fit for Johannesburg South Africa’s selectors will have much pondering ahead of them.

If Nick Compton had fallen in between, first ball, England’s situation would have been even more parlous. Rabada rapped into his pads, full and straight, but a review revealed an inside edge. It was enough for Compton to drop anchor. He would be sailing nowhere in a hurry.

With time of the essence, South Africa could not afford any delay. They removed Joe Root for 29 when Morris, with his first ball, exposed tentative footwork with one that straightened to hit off stump, but they might have got him on 18, four overs earlier, when Morkel had him caught by de Villiers at second slip only to have overstepped.

It was left primarily to Taylor to fashion a response, but even he needed a let-off when Rabada made a thrilling effort at short fine leg to claim a top-edged sweep, looking on in despair as the ball fell from his grasp when his elbw crashed into the turf.

Dane Piedt, the unlucky bowler, was not to be denied. By lunch, he was also in the wickets column, Compton’s suspicious innings ended by extra flight and a loose clip to short mid-on.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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