The probability is that England will polish off South Africa by taking their last six wickets on day five, and win the opening Test of an away series for only the second time in 11 years – and the first was in Bangladesh.
There is no chance of South Africa knocking off the 280 runs they need to win. England’s seamers are bowling the right length for this patchy pitch, unlike South Africa’s, especially after Dale Steyn had pulled out of the match with his strained right shoulder. Stuart Broad showed how to maximise these conditions in South Africa’s first innings, and Steve Finn – on his comeback after missing the series against Pakistan – in their second.
Finn has taken five wickets in total with his pace, bounce, and excellent line – all on a fuller length than that of his counterparts, Morne Morkel and Kyle Abbott. And England can access a second new ball about an hour after lunch if their seamers and Moeen Ali by then need some form of reinforcement.
Finn has taken five wickets overall on his comeback
And it is vital that England do finish off South Africa, when they are demoralised as never before in the era since readmission, and their captain Hashim Amla is gasping for air. If AB de Villiers were to conduct South Africa to safety, their confidence would be enormously revived, England’s equally deflated – and even more so if Cook were to lose the toss yet again in Cape Town, and England had to bowl on a flat deck on Saturday, after only two days that could hardly be called a break.
But even if England do win, as widely expected, they ought not to have postponed their declaration on the fourth afternoon, then abandoned the idea of one altogether. Everything should turn out all right in the end, but Alastair Cook threw South Africa a hint of a lifeline by batting on until England were dismissed.
More generally, to become the number one Test side, England have to show aggressive intent all the time, and not take their foot off the pedal as they did towards the end of their second innings. What would South Africa have most liked England to do after lunch on day four? To carry on batting as they did, which reduced the time the home side had to survive to “only” nine hours.
Television commentators are always the boldest when it comes to declarations: it makes good listening if they criticise the captain for delaying, and even better listening if the captain does declare when they say so and the target is knocked off. Furthermore, the claim that England should declare at lunchtime, when they were 364 ahead, made no allowance for the heat and the desirability of breaking up the second session by batting on for a few overs after the interval.
But Cook should have declared, at the latest, after Bairstow had slog-swept his third six, making the target 404 off 142 overs. Who’s bossing the game? Come on in, lads, we’ve got enough. It would have been such a positive signal.
Delayed declaration or not, victory would have been almost guaranteed by now if Jonny Bairstow had stumped de Villiers for 33. It used to be one of the ways that England offspinners took wickets – Jim Laker had ten stumpings, Graeme Swann 11 – but Moeen is still waiting for an England keeper to cling on.
Moeen was bowling round the wicket when de Villiers charged, so Bairstow perforce lost sight of the ball, but his hands did not have far to go to catch it. Bairstow had made 79, his second highest Test score, to go with 41 in his first innings. But a keeper has to make runs in nothing less than Bradmanesque quantities if he is going to miss key batsmen – like Hashim Amla in the first innings and de Villiers in the second.
Bairstow impressed with the bat
When keepers make a human error, it all depends on who they drop. In his previous Test, in Sharjah, Bairstow missed a catch and a stumping off Mohammad Hafeez, who went on to score 151 and bury England.
Earlier, in setting up the declaration that wasn’t, Bairstow was at his best, hustling and bustling between wickets, and using his strong right hand to muscle boundaries. He hit nine fours and three sixes off 76 balls; all his teammates could manage only 21 fours and two sixes between them in the space of 102 overs.
It might have been an ideal time for Jos Buttler to recover the habit of making Test runs, but it was Bairstow who seized this chance. He did not leave deliveries from the slow-medium Stiaan van Zyl as so many of his colleagues inexplicably did, given the need for a bit of urgency.
Joe Root was the picture of annoyance when he dabbed a catch to first slip, and banged his bat more than once on the field. It was the fourth time since his brilliant 130 in Nottingham that he had passed 70 without going on to a century.
Root fell for 73
Ben Stokes tried to run – and reverse-sweep – before he could walk, while James Taylor did his hungry squirrel impression. Dane Piedt finished with five wickets, which was highly commendable, though his economy rate of 4.25 runs per over on a turning pitch was not.
This pitch is not dead but it tends to slumber in the afternoon, and it took a ball of intense effort from Ben Stokes – who had hurt his big left toe – to take the first wicket by zipping between van Zyl’s bat and pad. South Africa had sped to 55 in 11 overs but there was no chance of their maintaining such a rate once the ball aged, the field spread and wickets fell.
England had to put their skates on to average 3.2 an over in their second innings, so South Africa’s target of 416 off 140 overs – reduced already by three by a slow over-rate – was never anything more than theoretical.