England 342 and 52 for 3 (Root 19*, Taylor 19*) need 330 more runs to beat South Africa 475 and 248 for 5 (Amla 96, Bavuma 78, Anderson 3-47)
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
South Africa made significant inroads late on the fourth day © Getty Images
South Africa will be confident that a first Test win in 10 attempts will fall their way on the final day of the fourth Test after grabbing three England wickets in the last 21 overs at Centurion. England, with the series already won, will seek to shrug away their disappointment, but salvaging something from this match looks unlikely even against a South Africa side that will have to count its fit and able on the morrow.
Watchful batting followed by a late clatter of English wickets: a brief flurry of rain apart, South Africa’s day at Centurion could hardly have been any more satisfying.
They first made the game safe with steadfast innings from Hashim Amla and Temba Bavuma – Amla falling only four runs short of making two centuries in the match before they declared 381 runs ahead – then took giant strides towards winning it.
The inroads were made by pace – two for Kagiso Rabada and one for Morne Morkel, but there was also enough purchase for the offspinner Dane Piedt to suggest that he can play an influential role. With the fitness of Kyle Abbott in serious doubt, he may have to. The odd thunderstorm is also lurking in the vicinity.
Alex Hales’ was England’s first wicket to fall, his unhappy debut series continued to the end. Leg before to Rabada for a single, he finished with 136 runs at 17 with only one half-century on a Cape Town featherbed. Uneven bounce played a part in his latest dismissal – probably as much as a foot’s difference to strike him on the knee roll – but his aptitude for Test cricket remains unproven.
His exciting potential in limited-overs cricket means that many observers look kindly upon him and for a while at least, until a contender demands the right to supplant him, they might as well.
Alastair Cook must also wait until next summer to become the youngest batsman to 10,000 Test runs – he still needs 36 after Morkel plucked a return catch to his right. Nick Compton not only fell driving at Rabada, he wasted a review in a frivolous challenge.
It could have been worse for England. Joe Root had two escapes against Piedt in the gloom, both on 10, Quinton de Kock missing a stumping when Piedt threaded one between bat and pad and then surviving a review as he was beaten on the sweep.
South Africa’s Test cricket has long been based on discipline and sobriety. It was thus when they were No. 1 in the world and it was not about to change with that ranking about to be lost and with a run of nine winless Tests behind them. It was a method that spread into English cricket during the coaching reigns of Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower. It is in their blood.
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.
But a game so reliant on statistics does not trust them when it comes to declarations, especially a risk-averse side with its bowling resources under strain.
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.
“He won’t bowl today,” came the advice from the South Africa camp when England batted. “He is on the field so he can bowl tomorrow.” With England’s openers dismissed within seven overs, he could not resist an exploratory over off a short run. If was hardly venomous but neither did he fall in a heap. He will probably play a bit part at most.
By the time rain five overs after tea hurried South Africa into a declaration, they had scored 206 in the day: four wickets lost and a run rate a shade above three an over. The centrepiece of that was a stand of 117 in 38 overs between Amla and Bavuma, assembled with great deliberation.
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.
If South Africa’s caution as tea approached began to feel excessive, their morning’s work was impressive. 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 their leading batsman in the series.
His second hundred went missing when he tried to abruptly shifted tempo after tea, surviving an England review as he swung lustily at the third ball, from Stuart Broad, skylarking at the fifth to be caught at the wicket. Bavuma’s outside hopes of a century also departed with the rain that forced the declaration – although to manufacture that end result would have been tactically unforgiveable.
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.
Anderson 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, eased 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. He reached his half century when Stokes spat one of a length at his face, the ball flew past short leg off his glove. Amla immediately signalled for an arm guard.
As the ball aged and the skies cleared, batting problems lessened. The declaration came too slowly for some, but South Africa had chosen their tactics and fulfilled them rather well.
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo