England 181 and 121 for 1 (Burns 77*) need a further 255 to beat South Africa 284 and 272 (van der Dussen 51, Archr 5-102)
True to their hard-earned reputation for perversity, England’s cricketers gave themselves a fighting chance of victory in the first Test at Centurion, mere hours after seemingly tossing away their only opportunity in one of the most wasteful morning sessions of recent memory.
With Rory Burns once again to the fore, unbeaten on 77- the eighth time out of 11 that he had been the man to produce a half-century at the top of the batting order – England strode to the close on 121 for 1, after an evening session of improbable serenity, punctured only by the lapse in concentration that ended Dom Sibley’s innings of 29 from 90 balls, and an opening stand of 92 that spanned 28 overs.
With two days to come, and 255 still required with nine wickets standing, one of these two sides is sure to head to Cape Town in the new year with a 1-0 lead in the series. And England, still a little bit giddy from their exploits at Headingley in the summer, will know that even a run-chase of 376 – 125 more than has ever previously been achieved at this venue – cannot be considered completely out of their reach.
After all, most of the men still to come in the middle order – Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow in particular – have spent the past four years making such chases seem commonplace in white-ball cricket at least, and perhaps relish the clarity that comes with a distinct endgame to their endeavours.
But this is also the side that has fallen in a batting heap on more occasions that they’d care to count in recent years – Mirpur 2016, Auckland 2017, Trent Bridge 2018, Bridgetown 2019, and the first innings of that self-same contest at Headingley in August, to name but a few. This could go down to the wire, or be all over by lunch. Neither upshot would be quite as eyebrow-raising as a common-or-garden 95-run defeat by mid-afternoon.
And in that context, it perhaps should not be surprising that England’s gains in an uplifting evening were offset by one of the worst mornings of Test cricket that even this yin-and-yang rabble has ever yet produced.
Having come into the third day with the stated aim of limiting South Africa’s lead to a manageable 300 (and how cushty would their overnight position seem had they done that?), England threw caution to the wind, tactics to the bin, and hope to the outer rim as Rassie van der Dussen, on debut, and Anrich Nortje, a nightwatchman with a previous Test best of 5 not out, thwarted their advances in a fifth-wicket stand of 91 that ate up the first 90 minutes of the day.
England, in some mitigation, were clearly distracted by dressing-room issues – or more accurately, issues in the field hospital-turned-“quarantine” where both Buttler and, for a time, the captain Root were housed after becoming the latest members of the camp to succumb to the unshakeable virus that has been plaguing the squad for a fortnight.
Buttler didn’t take the field at all – he was replaced behind the stumps by the man he replaced behind the stumps, Jonny Bairstow (who had replaced the man who had replaced the man behind the stumps, Ollie Pope, when he too fell ill on the eve of the game). And though Root did reappear in a game attempt to reattach his side’s wobbly wheels, he looked like death warmed up as South Africa took full toll.
More to follow…