NOTTINGHAM – The decisive moment on another captivating day’s play followed a short conversation between South African captain Faf du Plessis and Morné Morkel.
The big fast bowler was in the midst of a fine spell from the Radcliffe Road End after lunch, but had already bowled six overs and by rights, deserved a break.
Joe Root was on top, but a ball at the end of the sixth over of that spell, had driven both captain and bowler to try one more.
That ball from Morkel had cut back and shot through low, and should have wiped out Jonny Bairstow’s off-stump. It missed by the proverbial coat of varnish.
So Du Plessis asked, and Morkel answered. One more over it was to be, and how influential that decision turned out to be.
Morkel hung one outside off-stump asking Root to drive, the England captain obliged, but for once the ball did not find the middle of his bat. Instead, the edge flew towards first slip, where a diving Quinton de Kock suddenly appeared and took an excellent catch.
Morkel yelped in delight, the Proteas fielders bounded around and Du Plessis grabbed his big fast bowler in that affectionate manner around the cheeks as he has done so often in the last year.
From 143/4, England had collapsed to 205 all out – South Africa had a monumental first-innings lead of 130 as they finished the day on 75/1, which puts them 205 ahead.
While Root was at the crease, the game was in the balance. He was playing a different game to the other batsmen – bar perhaps De Kock – in this match. The South Africans, cock-a-hoop after dismissing England’s openers within five overs, very quickly unravelled in the face of Root’s elegant counter-attack.
It had been a bowler’s morning until Root arrived at the crease, with six wickets falling for just 29 runs in the first hour of play. The Proteas’ last four wickets fell for the addition of just 26 runs to their overnight score, all to James Anderson.
Root paid the swing and seaming conditions no bother, and set about the South Africans with excellent strokeplay – a couple of drives off Philander in the eighth over a highlight of a fine passage of play before lunch.
Chris Morris and Duanne Olivier were poor in their support of their senior seam-bowling partners as both were too short and wide, feeding Root freebies as he made a 40-ball half-century before lunch.
Such was the nature of his batting it felt like England’s morning, but the clouds still hung low, and Philander made an important breakthrough immediately after lunch to lift South African spirits when he bowled Gary Ballance off the inside edge and thigh.
Root dominated a 57-run fourth wicket partnership with Bairstow, but once Morkel had dug deep to remove him for a wonderful innings of 78, the course of the day and ultimately the match changed.
Keshav Maharaj bowled a brilliant spell from the Pavilion End, removing Ben Stokes with one that jumped out of the rough, and Bairstow with another that spun from the line of middle stump and struck the top of off.
Even Morris, when he returned later, bowled better lines and lengths, at one stage finding himself on a hat-trick.
He finished with three wickets, as did Maharaj, but the leaders of the attack Philander and Morkel had set the tone, with Morkel – who has cut a determined figure in the opening two Tests – producing the turning point of the day.
The Proteas batted out the final few hours in composed fashion, with the wicket of Heino Kuhn (eight) the only damage done. Their lead sits on 205 runs as Dean Elgar (38) and Hashim Amla (23) got to the close unharmed.
The forecast for Sunday’s third day is good, and South Africa will want to bat for all of it.