Despite battling South Africa and the weather, England will return to St George’s Park on Monday with four wickets to take for a comprehensive innings victory. It will be one to give them an unassailable 2-1 lead, a deserved scoreline going into the fourth Test in Johannesburg.
Given how poorly Sunday’s batting was, the 188 runs needed to take the game to a fourth innings feels academic. Especially considering how they were blown away in the morning session.
Stuart Broad and Sam Curran finished South Africa’s first innings for 209 in a 20-minute window of stump-twirling bedlam. An overnight position of 208 for six was chewed up and spat out in 4.4 overs.
The best of the tourists’ work came in a smaller window of 3.5 overs, from first to last first innings dismissal, in which the final four wickets were taken for the concession of just one run.
Six deliveries into the day, Broad sent Vernon Philander’s off peg for a walk, nipping one in off the seam to breach a defence that had been resolute for 60 of his 61 deliveries. A similar fate befell Quinton de Kock who faced just five from Sam Curran in the next over before his middle stump was put on its back.
But the cartwheeling timber act was not done there. Keshav Maharaj inexplicably gave Broad a second wicket of the innings with an under-edge that decimated leg stump.
At this point, the scored had not moved on, and the 291 deficit the Proteas took into day four remained. But the four wickets they had in the bank were whittled down to one. A tuck for one by Kagiso Rabada gave the hosts their first run from the 21st ball of the morning.
But it was Rabada who was the final man to go, inexplicably bunting to Mark Wood to gift Broad another and figures of three for 30. A previously robust tail lopped off inside 28 balls of play.
Naturally, with weather around, 290 in arrears and the pitch the most devilish it has been, South Africa were asked to follow-on.
By 10:34am, the players were back out there: Broad and Curran back with the new ball, Dean Elgar and Pieter Malan looking to make amends for the first innings mistakes.
While they were able to make it to 6.5 overs without loss, cutting the deficit to 275 and avoiding the occasional delivery that left their edges hanging, it was the rain that ensured safe passage at least to 2:10pm
Then, it was time for Mark Wood to reap his rewards. Brisk spells at the end of day two and morning of day three assisted the work Dom Bess was doing at the end. The off-spinner took a maiden Test five-wicket haul of five for 51 as Wood went wicketless. If there was an extra column for “Assists”, the 30-year old would have filled it for upsetting batsmen’s feet and nerve of Zubayr Hamza and Faf du Plessis who were picked up by Bess.
Just 1.2 overs after the restart, he finally got something to show for his work, adding Dean Elgar to the list of players to finish their innings with just two stumps standing. An approach from around the wicket tucked up the left-hander and, occasionally, darted past his outside edge. When he did finally get a touch on those of the latter, his off stump went for a walk.
Yet again, Hamza was given the kind of working over usually reserved for people who owe mobsters money. All 12 of the deliveries face by the number three batsman were sent down by Wood: all around the 90mph mark, some pushing him back, one cutting right through him between inside edge and pad and the last catching him hopping across his stumps and coming off the face of the bat down the leg side and into Jos Buttler’s gloves.
From then on, it was the Root show. It has taken one innings for him to better his wicket tally from the entirety of 2019. Bowling 18 overs straight from the Duck Pond End, he operated exclusively from over the wicket to both right-handers and the one leftie.
In the nicest way possible, Root has turned from a part-time off spinner to a wily slower bowlers you come across in club cricket. The type who just do a bit of everything – offies, leggies, seam up. All from a few steps. Reliant as much on conditions as preying on either a batsman’s ego or fear of falling to someone so, well, clubby.
But the England captain has been quietly perfecting this imperfect craft: experimenting with different grips, positions on the crease and release points. And every bit of it came into play in the final session.
Pieter Malan, doughty for 12 off 79, was given out to a delivery that pitched and straightened enough to hit in front of middle. That as much was confirmed by the hopeful DRS review he called for.
A successful review prevented Rassie van der Dussen falling in similar fashion, set-up with a slider and then misreading the flight on the next one. Unfortunately for Root, it was not straightening enough. The one 14 balls later did, though, and though the right-hander was able to get bat in the way, the ricochet of his front pad allowed Ollie Pope to pull off a stunning one-handed catch to his left.
The ego dismissal came with de Kock who lost his rag and swung absurdly at a full ball and was caught by a leaping Wood at backward point.
The unwitting one was the last of the day: Proteas skipper Faf du Plessis knuckling down for the longest of his six innings fo far in this series. Having reached 36 – his highest score in his last nine knocks – he also fell to a snare from Pope at bat-pad.
A greater ignominy was the review – absolutely in hope rather than expectation. The manner in which he walked off suggested he might not be long for the post he has now.
It might be because he is 35 and out of form, but he has worn this difficult time in South African cricket worse than most. There is a chance he could step down from the captaincy – and Test level altogether – either at the culmination of this match or the series.
What will be most disappointing for him, and indeed those associated with the team, was the lower- and middle-order capitulations that bookended the rains.
More is forecast for day five and the only uncertainty is just how much will fall. Already we’ve had much more than expected over the last couple of days.
But the sight of Philander closing the day with two aerial pulls straight to England fielders – one to Ben Stokes at leg gully, one to Dom Sibley at square leg, both dropped – suggested South Africa do not believe they can get out of this mess. The fight has long gone from this side.