South Africa give themselves plenty to think about on fourth afternoon

Until all is said and done on Tuesday, whatever it is that may be said and done, it’s difficult to say anything definitive about this South African batting performance. They might go on to score more than 300 for only the fifth time in 18 innings since January 2018, or they might not. They might have their first centurion of the new decade, or they might not. They might, and it is a very small might, bat out the day for a memorable draw, or they might collapse.

Whatever happens, they have already given themselves plenty to think about, a little to be a pleased out and a problem they won’t mind having from their performance on the fourth afternoon.

With 71, Pieter Malan and Dean Elgar gave South Africa their second-highest opening stand in the last two years after Elgar and Aiden Markram put on 85 against India in Centurion. Malan and Zubayr Hamza then gave the team a second-wicket partnership of 52, providing top-order stability that has been a stranger to the South African line-up over the past year.

In India, five of South Africa’s six innings started badly: 63 for 4, 70 for 8, 53 for 5, 16 for 3 and 36 for 5. At SuperSport Park, they were 32 for 2 and 29 for 3, so 126 for 2 is a much better position than South Africa have become used to and they have Malan to thank for that.

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From the first over, Malan made it clear that he knew exactly where his off-stump is. He left extravagantly, shuffling across, shouldering arms and jutting out a hip almost every time. But he also defended confidently, came down the wicket to dead-bat James Anderson and was not rattled when he was forced back to shorter balls from Stuart Broad. He used his feet well against the spin of Joe Denly and Dom Bess and weathered the late storm served up by Ben Stokes.

Malan fronted up to a nasty end to the day, when Stokes bent his back, turned up the pace and aimed for the body. The result was Malan being hit on the chest. No matter. He reached his first Test fifty in the next over, off 144 balls, with only two boundaries. Temperament, more than anything else, was what stood out about Malan.

“The fight that he has shown today – he knows his game pretty well. He played the situation perfectly this afternoon,” Jacques Kallis, South Africa’s batting consultant, said. “He knows how to switch on and switch off. He is very organised and I was very impressed with the mental capabilities that he has got.”

Kallis’ endorsement will go a long way to ensuring Malan has a decent run in the XI, something that seemed a distant possibility a week ago. Malan would not have played if Markram hadn’t fractured a finger while fielding at Centurion, but there’s an argument to be made that that should not have been the case. Like most of the South African line-up, he had a tough tour of India, with 44 runs in four innings, including a pair in Pune. Unlike Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma, Markram did not pay the price for his poor form.

The three half-centuries he scored in early 2019 (one against Sri Lanka and two against Pakistan) saved him, but if Markram had been benched too, he couldn’t really complain. His latest injury has forced him to spend some time thinking about his approach, which, as was apparent at SuperSport, is positive but sometimes too risky.

It also provided an opportunity for a more experienced first-class opener to make the step up, and Malan, on his home ground, has shown the value of his years. He has already done an impressive enough job to merit a place for the rest of this series, and perhaps even the winter tour to West Indies. Markram may have to work his way back in, through the domestic structures, and that’s no bad thing. Bavuma and de Bruyn are currently doing that and if Malan is anything to go by, they will return better players.

That’s something for South Africa to think about in the months to come. On Tuesday, their only concern is to get through each ball. Not the runs, not the series situation, not the record that could be within reach. Just the next ball. “We’re going to face as many balls as we can and have a look at tea,” Kallis said.

If they get there. Though batting on days three and four in cool, cloudy conditions was significantly easier than on days one and two in bright sunshine, that could change. Usually overhead cover assists the seamers but here the clouds kept the full-strength summer sun from opening up the cracks, specifically the one outside the right-handers’ offstump at the Kelvin Grove End. With warmer weather forecast for the final day and a second new ball due just before lunch, the smart money will be on the contest ending in England’s favour at some point in the afternoon.

Even Kallis seemed to agree as he called it a “tough ask,” to chase down the target of 438, from which South Africa are still 312 runs adrift. But he wouldn’t be a professional sportsman if he didn’t also think it could be done. It was Kallis who, after Australia hit 434 against South Africa in that ODI at the Wanderers, joked that the opposition were 10 runs short and the bowlers had done their job. If he offered anything similar here, it hasn’t been made public yet but what he did say is, at the very least, there is a chance for someone to make a name for themselves and the rest to see how it’s done.

“It’s an opportunity for guys to put their hands up and become heroes,” Kallis said. “It’s in situations like this where you see what guys are made of and how good they are and how far we can go. No matter what happens, the team will learn a lot from this game and that’s exciting, especially with this young batting line-up that we’ve got.”

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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