Cape Town – AB de Villiers, not for the first time in his productive cricketing life, is South Africa’s strongest beacon of hope by far as they strive to somehow salvage the first Test against England at Kingsmead on Wednesday.
Forget, I strongly suspect, the remaining 280 runs the embattled Proteas require to win with six wickets in hand entering the final day: it will be overwhelmingly about whether they can stonewall for long enough to escape with a draw from a contest they have so seldom commanded.
Stranger things have happened – many times – in the game’s premier format than for the world’s presently tottering No 1-ranked side to succeed in the required rearguard action.
That said, however, it could also be curtains all too rapidly if De Villiers, the one frontline South African batsman to have largely retained his mojo in the deeply problematic calendar year of 2015, were to succumb early in England’s onslaught on day five.
He has an unbeaten 37 off 83 deliveries and would have been hugely pained to see his old schoolmate Faf du Plessis succumb to a brute of a delivery from Steven Finn shortly before Tuesday’s close.
It was somehow indicative of the collective SA struggle for decent harvests in the runs column during recent months that Du Plessis ended with little to show again statistically after 103 minutes of gritty defending – history will crudely reflect that he scored a meagre nine.
So De Villiers carries even more weight on his classy shoulders with only the raw Temba Bavuma and out-of-touch JP Duminy of other recognised batsmen to support him in the taxing shutout quest – it is well documented by now that the Proteas bat only as deep as a shallow grave in terms of the potential for tail resistance.
Still, this battle-wise trooper will be well aware of the crucial task of trying to keep England in the field for as long as possible on Wednesday, regardless of whether or not the home outfit do eventually survive for a stalemate.
That is quite obviously the primary objective ... but it is also vital, considering the formidably quick turnaround to the second Test at South Africa’s altogether happier hunting ground, Newlands, that the visitors are made to battle long and hard for the remaining wickets they seek.
A mere two full days separate the Durban contest from Cape Town, and the very fact that England would have to bowl last in the first encounter may have formed at least some part of Hashim Amla’s rationale in inserting them when he won the Kingsmead toss.
It would be a very handy development, under the circumstances, if the Proteas manage to take the contest a considerable way through day five even if it ends up being in defeat for them.
You always have to keep the bigger picture in mind during a Test series between closely-matched teams, and if Amla were to win a second toss in a row at Newlands – where traditionally you choose to bat first over New Year anyway, unless conditions are unusually different at the outset – he would be heartened by the thought that England might be bowling all over again so soon after stepping off a domestic flight down the coast.
As things stand, the tourists have sent down 128.4 overs at Kingsmead with more to come at the business end; South Africa bowled 202.2 overs over the course of the two completed England knocks.
Alastair Cook’s team already boast the luxury of a five-man specialist attack, given the precious presence in their ranks of a fully-fledged all-rounder in Ben Stokes, whereas the Proteas are almost certain to enter the second Test again with just four out-and-out bowlers.
It has been hard going for all of Morne Morkel, Kyle Abbott and Dane Piedt in Durban, considering the negligible workload contribution Dale Steyn was able to make before breaking down early in England’s second innings.
That trio would be as chuffed as anyone else on these shores if they saw Stuart Broad and company put through a gruelling closing day at Kingsmead, to make them potentially footsore starters at Newlands.
Speaking of Piedt, the cheerful little off-spinner’s maiden “five-for” in his third Test match provided some cheer for the Proteas earlier on Tuesday.
It was hardly the most devastating of performances you will see from a spinner at this level, and must be placed in the context of England’s assault, under relatively little pressure, for additional runs to ensure their foes would be set 400-plus in the fourth innings.
The fact that Piedt conceded 153 runs, and went at 4.25 to the over, also reminded that he is a novice when it comes to keeping a decent lid on things, as chief slow bowlers are often required to do.
But his potential was also there for all to see, and the 25-year-old Cobras customer has now not registered less than a four-wicket haul in one innings, at least, in any of the trio of Tests he has played.
Interviewed by SuperSport’s Mike Haysman shortly after the close of play, Piedt also effectively reminded the world – though he certainly wasn’t blowing his own trumpet -- of the tenacious triumph he has had over serious shoulder reconstruction, following his debut against Zimbabwe in 2014.
“It was eight months before I could even begin to throw a ball again ... I thought about giving up the game (at some stages of rehab), to be honest. I thought I might just become a clubbie.”
South Africa could do with good-news stories like Piedt’s one at present ...
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