Tea England 629 for 6 dec and 155 for 6 (Bairstow 26*, Moeen 10*) lead South Africa 627 for 7 dec (Amla 201, Bavuma 102*, de Villiers 88, du Plessis 86, Morris 69) by 157 runs
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England top order feeling the jitters
From nowhere, a smouldering Newlands Test burst into life. A final day that many anticipated would bring unbearable drudgery became an urgent England battle for survival. Fourth-day slumbers threatened to turn into something darker and more disturbing.
By tea, England could pretty much rest easy, holding a lead of 157 with a minimum of 34 overs remaining, but the monsters had felt real, never quite in view, but sensed enough to disturb the mind.
Forbidding clouds clung to Table Mountain, where some England supporters had strolled the previous day to pass the time with the Test at its most inactive. The pitch remained sound for a fifth day, but there was swing around for the first time in the Test. As the pressure mounted, there was some turn too, as three wickets by tea for the offspinner Dane Piedt testified.
Critics of this Newlands surface discovered their judgment had been, at best, premature, at worst entirely invalidated. There was a period on the fourth morning when Amla was on his lengthy constitutional that the pitch had died and the Test was in stalemate, but even then taking wickets was not impossible: England dropped nine catches in South Africa’s second innings after all, and wondered if they would regret it.
South Africa’s slim chance of victory was probably extinguished 15 minutes before tea when Jonny Bairstow survived a stumping in Dean Elgar’s first over by the narrowest margin – Rod Tucker’s not-out ruling taking so long that they lost an over in the process. England led by 149 with 38 overs left, Bairstow cut the next ball to the boundary and a melancholic drizzle began to fall.
Is there any first-innings score where a Test side can feel absolutely safe these days? England’s declaration at 629 for 6 smacked of impregnability, but they were alarmed to find that it was not the case. The climax became a battle for survival: three wickets lost in the first hour, six by drinks in mid-afternoon.
A draw always remained by far the likeliest result, but English stomachs were queasy. South Africa, so bereft midway through the second day, had enjoyed a restorative time since then and, assuming 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.
Now even 600-plus was 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 apparent. Ben Stokes had batted so quickly for his first-innings 258 that the time available in the Test 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, a captain unable to kill the contest. 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 elbow crashed into the turf.
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.
All it needed was for a couple of balls to career off the size 11 hole that Stuart Broad had made in the pitch in frustration at a dropped catch the previous day – his aggravated response to the umpire’s intervention bringing him a fine – and it would have capped England’s uncomfortable morning.
Stokes was an obvious threat. Such is his rate of scoring that an hour of him would be terminal for South Africa. His 26 from 34 balls eased England’s nerves, but every time they sensed safety another wicket fell. Stokes had swept Piedt convincingly behind square but the bowler shrewdly offered him a repeat and this time his control was lacking, a top-edge sailing to Morkel at deep square.
James Taylor played England’s most well-balanced innings, but he succumbed, too – a third wicket for Piedt as the ball gripped and brushed the glove before settling at short leg. It was left to Bairstow and Moeen Ali to banish the monsters.
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo