Tea South Africa 475 and 223 for 4 (Amla 96*, Bavuma 63*) lead England 342 by 254 runs
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James Anderson dismissed AB de Villiers for his third duck in a row © Getty Images
Hashim Amla, four runs short of his second hundred in the match, and Temba Bavuma, playing neatly in his wake to reach an equally level-headed half-century, guided South Africa with great deliberation to a position of strength by tea of the fourth day in Centurion.
Amla and Bavuma wore down England’s resistance in a wicketless afternoon in which neither player offered a glimmer of a chance. They met England’s three main pace bowlers with great concentration, adjusted calmly when the pitch occasionally misbehaved, and gladly accepted scoring opportunities as Chris Woakes and Moeen Ali were unable to sustain the pressure.
On an indifferent pitch, in normal circumstances a lead of 356 would sound virtually impregnable, a forerunner to a likely South Africa victory, but an injury to Kyle Abbott meant that South Africa could not take anything for granted.
Abbott, with his hamstring heavily strapped, attempted a few deliveries on the outfield before the start of play but his approach was so tentative and delivery so feeble his future involvement in the Test was cast into doubt; he looked in more danger of getting a late call up for the Masters Champions League.
No side has ever successfully chased more than 251 in the fourth innings at Centurion, a feat achieved by England in 2000 with two wickets to spare: the infamous match-fixing declaration by Hansie Cronje. Rule out skulduggery and nobody has ever chased down more than 200.
South Africa’s initial caution was understandable, nevertheless, as they made 79 runs in the morning session. It was exemplified by Amla, whose painstaking progress was in sharp contrast to his blissful hundred in the first innings. On each occasion, he has summoned an innings perfectly suited to the situation and has been comfortably South Africa’s leading batsman in the series.
If Amla has given South Africa’s most batting sustenance in the series, AB de Villiers has had a torrid time since assuming the captaincy after Amla’s mid-series resignation. He has had three ducks in succession, facing only nine balls in the process, his latest failure coming second ball when James Anderson found a hooping inswinger to have him lbw.
Considering that de Villiers had politely observed before the Test that England had some bowlers – essentially Anderson – who remained highly skilled but were down on pace – the dismissal came with a bit of invective attached. De Villiers reviewed: the batsman disconsolate, the bowler continuing to fume until he had his reward.
Anderson took the first three wickets to fall. Dean Elgar had been snaffled the previous evening in a challenging session where South Africa did well to close at 42 for 1. Stephen Cook followed in the fifth over of the morning, a drive away from his body, a perceived weak spot throughout his career bringing about his downfall.
England, who won the series in Johannesburg, had belatedly awoken to their task, no more so than Anderson, who began South Africa’s second innings with only four wickets to his name, having missed the first Test in Durban because of injury, but whose pace and movement was greater than at any time in the series.
At 49 for 3, the lead 182, South Africa had a few qualms. JP Duminy, batting high at No. 5, managed to ease them, adding 57 with Amla before Ben Stokes drew him into a loose drive. Stokes, who had also struck Amla painfully on the thumb of his bottom hand the previous evening, was a handful and Amla was grateful to reach lunch unscathed.
Well, not entirely unscathed. The manner in which Amla reached his half-century – spanning three-and-a-quarter hours – emphasised that batting was now an exacting business. Stokes spat one of a length towards his face, the ball flew past short leg off his glove and Amla immediately signalled for an arm guard.
As the ball aged and the skies cleared, batting problems lessened. Likely to be a bowler down because of Abbott’s injury, South Africa will have watched Moeen from the dressing room with particular interest and will have had mixed feelings as Amla, serenely, and the quick-footed Bavuma picked him off so contentedly.
The more spin the better for a side which will seek to force a first victory in 10 Tests with two pace bowlers and the offspin of Dane Piedt supported by two more slow bowlers of limited pedigree in Elgar and Duminy. They would have wanted to see the ball playing more tricks than this.
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo