‘Only’ 588 balls to safety, SA...

Dean Elgar (AP)
Dean Elgar (AP)

Cape Town - Thank goodness, as former national coach Eric Simons reminded in his SuperSport punditry cap, that cricket is a funny old game.

It’s about the only thing in South Africa’s favour as they contemplate a positively gargantuan game-saving task on day five of the third Test against England at The Oval on Monday.

No, make that two things: the other is the fact that they have two willing little Davids still at the crease, Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma, prepared to keep wrestling contrastingly tall-timber English Goliaths like James Anderson, Stuart Broad and impressive debutant Toby Roland-Jones.

But there is only so much you can do to prevent the proverbial dam wall from bursting and, with the cream of the frontline batting already ripped out in this formidable fourth innings - target a nominal 492 to win, though dogged draw is naturally the golden desire - salvation truly seems a million miles away.

In cold statistical terms, it is 588 legal deliveries still distant, as time is still being made up in this weather-disrupted contest, meaning that 98 overs will be available to a home team circling like vultures above an impending carcass.

Considering that South Africa, 117 for four at Sunday’s close, have already lost 14 wickets in the match at an alarmingly modest gain of only 292 runs, mustering the necessary fortitude and acumen to earn a stalemate seems desperately unlikely, although Elgar and Bavuma do tick the box for grit.

The last-named player (16 not out off 59 balls) has just begun to carry on where he left off in his defiant, top-scoring first innings of 52, in an unbroken stand of 65 with the left-handed Elgar, a rot-stopper which should at least ensure that a significant enough number of spectators make the trek to the venue for the final day.

“He comes in and transmits a sense of calm,” said Sky’s Mike Atherton admiringly of Bavuma, who has got in line and retained his organisational sense better than any compatriot at the crease in this Test.

Meanwhile Elgar, increasingly earning the admiration of England’s best commentators for his fighting spirit which eclipses his ungainly limitations in the technical area, has advanced in some physical discomfort to an unbeaten 72 off 111 deliveries, an innings marked by a pleasing desire not to get bogged down despite the broadly stonewalling nature of the team’s task.

That said, even this dominant figure amidst the increasingly flaky Proteas batting order thus far possibly faces additional challenges on Monday.

As England legend Ian Botham pointed out, Elgar is very clearly nursing a damaged finger, something that has caused him to pull a hand off the bat repeatedly with certain strokes in a reflex action.

“If there is a problem there, it will be even harder (for him) tomorrow,” he said as the shadows lengthened on Sunday’s play.

Perhaps the worst news from a South African perspective, in a match England have governed for lengthy periods, is that the weather forecast for the fifth day seems kinder than for any previous day in the Test.

No rain at all was anticipated at the time of writing, and good doses of sunshine are even possible.

The second part of that meteorological scenario is pretty decent for the batting side, of course, in terms of the diminished threat of the ball jagging around too excessively, yet it also lessens the prospect of bad light intervening if embattled South Africa do, somehow, drag things out to well into the last session.

Do the tourists even deserve some shut-out assistance from the elements?

Not really, is the answer, even if untimely weather intrusions are a time-honoured factor in the game and have benefitted every team on the planet on various, priceless occasions.

As Simons aptly put it, following England’s well-better-than-par first-innings score of 353 on a challenging surface: “It’s been like a boxing match where England delivered a haymaker in the first round and we’ve been groggy ever since.”   

Diehard Proteas fans live in hope, even as it still seems so enormously likelier that the national team will perish in flames at The Oval...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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