Cape Town – Hello, Dolly? No, it’s ominously closer to
goodbye if your allegiances lie with South Africa.
The Proteas went to England to try to wrest back the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy from England’s grasp, but a pretty grave danger exists that Friday comes to be reflected upon as the day in the four-Test series where they effectively frittered away any chance of doing so.
South Africa need to win the series, remember, to recapture it, but on eventful day two of the third Test at The Oval the host nation hugely cranked up their chances of edging into a 2-1 lead with only Old Trafford left to contest.
Certainly the likeliest result at the hallowed London venue – where Capetonian-born icon D’Oliveira himself made a famous 158 for his adopted country against Australia in 1968 -- has all too quickly become “England win”, thanks to some still too inconsistent Proteas bowling and then a near-cataclysmic collapse to 126 for eight at stumps in their own first innings.
Yes, it is hard to see the tourists salvaging this Test match, let alone turning the tables dramatically to win it, as they still trail by a gaping 227 runs.
That said, their chances of some kind of great escape over the next three days, to keep that cup-snatch ambition alive, were given a defiant boost in the stubbornly gloomy late afternoon and evening by the unflustered obduracy – both technical and mental – of middle-order batsman Temba Bavuma.
An even more abject rout had seemed firmly on the cards when the Proteas, the cream of their batting undone by debutant seamer Toby Roland-Jones, were pegged back to a humiliating 61 for seven in reply to England’s commendable 353 (Ben Stokes confirmed his enduring relish for the Proteas attack through a damaging century – marked by his willingness for healthy periods to curb his natural gung-ho tendencies on the challenging surface).
At the time, with plenty of overs left in the day’s play, punch-drunk South Africa taking guard a second time before the close was a depressing likelihood.
But that was when the pint-sized Bavuma, who is making an increasing habit of producing his most admirable resistance when chaos is either threatening or present around him, knuckled down with special devotion and found an invaluable ally in tail-ender Kagiso Rabada.
They mercifully suspended the rot with a half-century stand for the eighth wicket, Rabada only falling to an excellent delivery from Stuart Broad after compiling a purposeful and often crisp 30 off 49 balls.
He has always been lauded for his ability with the blade, and now beginning to show it with increased regularity in Test cricket, where three of his last five innings have seen scores of 27 or more – very useful stuff from the bowels of the order.
Speaking of that part of the anatomy, it brings us to the issue of one Vernon Philander: the fact that Morne Morkel then joined Bavuma (34 not out, 67 deliveries, and a generally hugely watertight defence) in successfully shutting up shop to the close, after a marathon post-tea session, also meant that the follow-on avoidance target of 154 doesn’t look quite as elusive as it had done an hour or so previously.
That is because, even once the ninth-wicket pair are separated, there is now an opportunity, if he is deemed suitably up to it, for the sickness-afflicted Philander, more usually the No 7 batsman in the current team make-up, to take guard at No 11 on Saturday.
South Africa need a further 28 runs, with those two wickets to play with, in order to take out of Joe Root’s hands any thoughts of follow-on enforcement.
Just in that mini-contest-within-a-contest sense, you might say it is engagingly “game on”.
There is still tipped to be some inclement weather around on the Test’s middle day – and who knows what might occur beyond that; this is England? – so the Proteas nudging their way to or beyond 154 could still be an important development as it might drag out the clash fairly significantly, buying much-treasured time for the besieged visitors.
I reckon smart money remains very firmly on the resurgent hosts to both give themselves that follow-on option and then go on to triumph in the Test.
But Bavuma (and buddies) have served notice that the supposedly looming corpse has a faint pulse.
Might other SA figures start banging more spiritedly on the walls of the descending coffin on day three?
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