Cape Town – Test cricket’s capacity for quirkiness came pleasingly to the fore at an otherwise gloomy St George’s Park on Saturday.
Day three of the third encounter between South Africa and England saw the tourists push their way determinedly closer to grabbing the lead for the first time in the four-Test series … but the Proteas simultaneously show sufficient mettle to indicate that saving the match isn’t absolutely beyond them.
Unanticipated developments came by the fistful, ahead of the host nation ending the curtailed combat on 208 for six in their first innings, and needing a further 92 runs on Sunday with little credible batting left to stave off – perhaps very importantly? – the likelihood of Joe Root being in a position to enforce a follow-on.
Just one surprise was the extent to which rain disrupted play, when weather forecasts had initially suggested something closer to mere dribs and drabs of the wet stuff: eventually only 64 overs were possible, not the worst state of affairs for the already so clearly backs-to-the-wall South Africans.
Then there was the instance of Dom Bess, England’s still-rookie and relatively untrumpeted off-spinner, becoming the first English slow bowler since Derek “Deadly” Underwood in an Ashes Test of 1975 at Adelaide to bag all of the first five wickets of an innings.
Underwood, now 74, would later become a member of the controversial first English rebel tour squad in South Africa in 1981/82.
The other event you would not have staked too much dosh on before Saturday’s play was the Proteas’ night-watchman Anrich Nortje ending it as (albeit only just) the home batsman to have faced the most deliveries in the innings at this point.
While in-form Quinton de Kock was sailing along nicely at stumps on his unbeaten 63 off 134 balls, Nortje resisted all and sundry in the England attack for 136 of them and a just as commendable more than three hours.
This game can be a cruel one, too, as the scorebook will forever read that the doggedly determined fast bowler ended with a seemingly humdrum 18 runs; for his sheer tenacity and eye-openingly organised defence, it felt more like a 60 or 70 in value and showed up a few more specialist SA batsmen.
“He is one of those guys who just looks thoroughly engaged as a Test cricketer, whether it is with bat or ball,” said former national captain Shaun Pollock in SuperSport commentary tribute to his longevity at the crease before Ben Stokes – who else? – finally induced a nick behind.
Speaking of Stokes, the indomitable all-rounder simply added to the day’s wackiness by showing the more “human” side to his superhuman label with a three-spillage tally at slip.
Normally an enviable flycatcher in the position, the beneficiary of his gremlins was De Kock each time.
“It’ll be many a day before you see Ben Stokes again drop three and not pick up a single one (catch),” observed another television pundit, Mike Atherton, sagely.
There was one more development you don’t witness every day in Test matches: Root exercising his right to a new ball three deliveries from the scheduled close, and an off-spinner (Bess) rather than speed merchant operating with it.
Perhaps Sunday will show a return to more orthodox occurrences, and just one of those would be England – arguably still 70/30 favourites to achieve it, wouldn’t you think? – facilitating the follow-on option.
If the Proteas are to skirt it, much will depend on how much further the budding, already half-century alliance for the seventh wicket between De Kock and Vernon Philander can last.
There are only three bowlers – Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada and Dane Paterson – yet to take guard, and if Philander is first to go, and relatively quickly, on Sunday, then you might witness De Kock resort to more trademark, cavalier-striking methods to try to reach the required 300 for the Proteas.
We may well see a substantially stronger case of “game on” in the event the home side do manage to take follow-on off the table.
It would eat up a fair chunk of useful time, from their perspective, with England required to take to the crease again and attempt to push things along at a rate of knots on the sluggish pitch … plus the prospect that a bit of weather may yet, it appears, have a further say on the contest.
The Proteas are tottering, but they haven’t been pronounced dead.
Not with people like Nortje around.
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