JOHANNESBURG – There are still seven wickets for the South Africans to make history and Australia have 91 overs to bat out to save the match and regain some credibility at the end of a distressing tour.
The fourth day’s play was one of the stranger ones in recent seasons. It lacked the bruising drama of the first three Tests, but what it missed in that department, it more than made up for in quirkiness.
From Dean Elgar’s innings which was made up of 215 dot balls (86% of his innings) to Faf Du Plessis getting smashed on his already pained right forefinger for the second time in the match, to the whys and the how longs of the decision to continue batting, as the lead stretched well past a figure Australia’s limited batting resources can even dream of successfully pursuing.
South Africa’s dressing-room, according to the team’s management, was a virtual infirmary. Morne Morkel’s side was strained, and strapped before play, Kagiso Rabada had a stiff lower back and Vernon Philander had his groin strapped up. And that was before Du Plessis got smashed on his forefinger by impressive Pat Cummins, drawing blood.
It was certainly a day on which the team’s physiotherapist Craig Govender earned his keep.
While the continuation of the SA second innings caused a collective meltdown with viewers, the ploy was understandable. History beckons for Du Plessis’ team and there is no way they would risk losing the opportunity to beat Australia for the first time at home in the post-isolation era.
Every other South African itch as far as Test cricket is concerned has been scratched and with the prize so close at hand, the extra caution was warranted.
Du Plessis’s eighth Test century was an important milestone for him too at the end of a challenging season. He hasn’t contributed in the way he’d have wanted with the bat, which wasn’t helped by the fact he came into the series with that finger, which he fractured in the first ODI against India back in February, still not fully recovered.
He’d come into the match having scored only 55 runs in the first three Tests, and then on day one didn’t offer a shot to a ball that slanted into him from Cummins. He mixed obduracy with some booming stroke-play, to register a very fine century.
In the context of the day, it was a most valuable contribution and means that four of the home team’s top five have made centuries in the series, the only one missing being Hashim Amla.
Dean Elgar produced a blocking extravaganza as his part of a 170-run fourth wicket partnership with Du Plessis, while the bowlers got primped and pampered.
In fact given the news from the dressing-room after lunch, the sight of all three seamers warming up during the tea interval thus confirming a declaration caught many by surprise.
Regardless of the state of his intercostal, Morkel then bowled a magnificent spell - eight overs on the trot - claiming 2/18 as Australia lost three wickets, all trapped lbw, in an intense couple of hours.
Who knows how that injury will hold up overnight. He’ll certainly be strapped up again, and probably be jabbed with cortisone, but what better way to go into retirement than to bowl your country to an historic victory?