Day 3 of 5: England 362 and 224/8, South Africa 226
MANCHESTER – For a while the Proteas, not unsurprisingly led by their bowlers, ignored the calls of home, ignored the opposition’s big lead, ignored the fact they’d played poorly in this match and instead showed plenty of tenacity.
It briefly caused some ripples in England’s dressing room but then Joe Root, all hustle and bustle, and Moeen Ali’s all-flowing elegance charged their team ahead and by the time the rain stopped play, South Africa were put firmly back in their place.
One can only feel sympathy for the visiting bowlers in this Test. When it looked like they could get England out for around 300 in the first innings, Faf du Plessis set the field back for Jonny Bairstow and the English scored 60 more runs.
Then they would have expected the batsmen to put England’s bowlers under pressure.
Instead the tourists got tied down – batting themselves into submission, as former England spinner Graeme Swann put it.
And it was in fact the last four wickets – yup, the bowlers – who ensured a barely respectable total was posted.
Morné Morkel then bowled an eight-over spell first up from the James Anderson End and got two wickets, starting the ripples in the England dressing-room.
The bowlers would have had every right to be miffed as their fielders dropped five catches – Dean Elgar two easy ones, including Keaton Jennings, when England’s beleaguered left-hand opener had nought.
Morkel has the look of a man for whom this could be it, as far as his Test cricket is concerned. He is one of a number of players whose international futures will be in the inbox of the new coach to decide about.
Morkel wants to hold talks with Cricket SA. On this form, they can’t afford to lose him.
Kagiso Rabada has also bowled better in this Test match. He eventually dismissed Jennings – and as a result, may have put the opener’s international career on hold for a while – and then Toby Roland Jones later, with Keshav Maharaj finally holding a catch, for 11.
Maharaj put in another marathon effort from the Statham End, bowling 25 overs with a heavily strapped left hamstring, his accuracy waning as he tired in the final session.
Duanne Olivier delivered the best spell of his short time as a Test player, knocking over Root and Ben Stokes in a dream period around tea.
And having thrown themselves into the fray, as they tired in the afternoon, Moeen took advantage – he’d been dropped on 15 by Elgar at slip off Maharaj – and broke the bowlers’ spirits, scoring 67 off 59 balls, depositing one six into his own dressing-room too.
When the rain ended South Africa’s pain, England’s lead was 360 runs.
Morkel, Rabada, Maharaj and Olivier had bowled themselves into the ground. They had briefly given their team hopes of a special turnaround, but the mental exertion and the physical toil was eventually too much.
Hopefully the batsmen – in between dropping catches – were paying attention. This match may be too far out of range to win, but they need to display similar fighting qualities.
They may look back at this Test and this series even, and say they never took advantage enough of England’s weaknesses – three of their batsmen are rookies, two of whom look out of their depth at this level.
England have exposed Hashim Amla to the new ball by getting rid of Heino Kuhn early, but the South Africans haven’t done that enough to England’s rookies to put the very classy Root under more pressure.
And of course the Proteas’ batting, which was just inconsistent for most of this year, has looked a shambles in this match.
Changes must and will be made, when the new coach comes along.
But for now, there is a Test that must still be concluded here, and the batsmen need to show the same level of fight the bowlers did here on what was another very difficult day for the visitors.