Day 4 of 5
England 353 and 313/8 declared; South Africa 175 and 117/4
LONDON – Whoever becomes South Africa’s next coach has an enormous task on his hands to fix the team’s batting, which has been alarmingly inconsistent over the last two years.
In India in 2015, it was easy to explain away the problems, given the raging turners prepared for two of the Tests there. It was also a long tour, and the South Africans were simply worn down.
There’s been some bad selection – Stiaan van Zyl was retained far too long as an opener, while JP Duminy was given a few too many chances.
Of course the natural question to ask is, who in domestic cricket can be picked, and in truth, both of those options – Theunis de Bruyn and Aiden Markram – are already in this squad.
As is Heino Kuhn, the form batsman on the domestic scene in the last two years.
The Proteas have struggled to notch up big totals in the last couple of years, going past 400 only six times in 22 Tests – two of those coming against Sri Lanka at home last summer.
With the exception of Temba Bavuma, whose temperament and technique have made him an important cog in the middle-order, and Quinton de Kock – whose contributions from the No 7 position often pulled the side out of the mire last summer – and Dean Elgar, whose resilience has been allied to consistency in the last 18 months, South Africa’s batting can’t be said to be secure.
They’ve tried to change openers – Elgar’s had five different opening partners in the last 22 Tests – shifted around the middle-order, moved from seven front-line batsmen to six in this series, and now shifted De Kock from seven to four to try and solve the problem with that inconsistency, but nothing’s worked.
Du Plessis said before this Test he wasn’t concerned at the lack of hundreds from his batsmen in the last four-and-half matches – citing green pitches as an excuse.
That may just be an attempt by the captain to take the pressure off his batsmen, but it’s not worked in this match.
On the one hand, England’s bowlers deserve credit for the accuracy and consistency they’ve shown here.
They kept Hashim Amla in a vice-like grip throughout his 49-minute stay at the crease on Sunday – relentlessly attacking his off-stump – although as Graeme Smith pointed out on radio commentary, he didn’t feel that South Africa’s most experienced player was assertive enough.
Kuhn’s jumping around too much, Amla’s under pressure because he’s usually arriving at the crease too early, while De Kock is growing accustomed to his new position and Du Plessis has shouldered arms to two straight balls in this Test.
While the decision to utilise De Kock at No 4 on the surface seems a good one, it may be one spot too high in the order, given he will be exposed to fresh bowlers and a harder ball, all while carrying a heavy workload as the wicket-keeper.
In this Test he’s been dismissed twice when aiming to hit a full moving ball to midwicket, closing the face and in the first innings getting caught in the gully off the leading edge, while in the second dig on Sunday, he was bowled by Ben Stokes.
The Proteas were left the task of batting 138 overs to save the Test when Joe Root declared at tea, with a lead of 491 runs. The runs were inconsequential, but this was to be an examination of South Africa’s fighting qualities.
Only Elgar and Bavuma have shown the stomach for it, battling through 21 overs on Sunday evening in a partnership that is currently worth 65 runs.
Only three times have teams successfully batted through the last day of a Test when they’ve been four wickets down – Michael Atherton’s famous 185 at the Wanderers in 1995 saw England draw there, Matt Prior hung on with the tail in Auckland in 2013 for England and Du Plessis, on debut at Adelaide in 2012, did the same for South Africa against the Australians.
So Elgar (72 not out) and Bavuma (16 not out) don’t have far to look for inspiration or advice.
If they do, they’ll be celebrated, but that doesn’t mean the Proteas’ batting foibles would have been solved.