Muted Proteas slipping toward suffocation

Vernon Philander (Gallo Images)
Vernon Philander (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - You might best call it South Africa's somnambulant Sunday.

In what proved one of their least animated days of duty under the still short-lived tenure of Mark Boucher and company as their reshuffled coaching panel, the Proteas drifted on day three of the second Test against England at Newlands ominously toward a "no way back" situation.

The match truly seems the tourists' for the taking from here, as they hold an increasingly powerful hand of cards in pursuit of a series-levelling victory.

Still with half a dozen sessions to play and the weather forecast favourable, England's lead of 264 with six second-dig wickets in hand (a stoical Dom Sibley closing in on a maiden century) is extremely close to an impregnable position in their favour, especially against the backdrop of the relative modesty of each team's first turn at the crease.

A shaft of light for the home side was a double strike - captain Joe Root for 61 and nightwatchman Dominic Bess for a duck - near the close of play, when they showed a bit of late "sting", ironically with a very aged ball.

But you could also argue that it was a deceptive period, based on prior hallmarks in the day, given South Africa's general trend of lethargic body language and execution of chores in the field.

Until the pair of dismissals before stumps, they had toiled through more than 77 overs for a flimsy two earlier successes in the wickets column: an unexpected occurrence considering all the hype about the cracks in the pitch supposedly opening up from the Wynberg End, and quite likely to be a pivotal event in the match.

In the Proteas' defence, the day's coolness and overwhelming levels of cloud cover clearly went some way to keeping the surface's integrity, something less likely had there been more baking summer sun on it.

Batting coach and SA playing legend Jacques Kallis, speaking to SuperSport on the outfield afterwards and as someone who knows Newlands like the back of his hand, made this far from irrelevant point: "Sometimes Newlands does flatten out on days three and four, which is strange ... the guys said it lost its pace and venom (during Sunday)."

In a defiant footnote, if you like, he added: "I have learnt what a crazy game this can be ... we love a fight, that I can promise."

Nevertheless, the Proteas spent the best part of the first two sessions, and slightly beyond, looking a little more benign and occasionally bereft of constructive ideas than might have been expected on all-important "moving day".

Veteran seamer Vernon Philander, playing in his final Test at a venue where he has so often been an inspiring, bustling figure, found it hard right at the outset to muster any semblance of pace or zip to his bowling, usually operating in the low 120s in kilometres-per-hour terms.

"SuperVern" didn't significantly crank it much higher in limited stints as the day developed, although his parsimony - a dozen runs conceded in as many overs - could hardly be faulted in a broadly tedious-tempo day's action.

Similarly, left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj didn't have anything like the impact anticipated after many deliveries had drawn puffs of dust from the pitch a day earlier: his 27 overs also saw him go fruitless in strike terms at a cost of 79 runs and he got increasingly defensive even if that was perhaps a natural development as England took increasing charge of things.

The one source of admirably consistent fire in the attack was rapidly emerging speedster Anrich Nortje, who fully deserved to boast premier SA figures at stumps of 2/36 from 15 largely intense overs.

In that context, pundit and former England captain Nasser Hussain found it puzzling that Nortje - who had claimed Root's prize scalp in the first innings - hadn't been significantly assigned to bomb the visiting leader soon after he took guard.

"They had bumped him out first time around ... but there were very few short balls to Root's throat (this time). Not to have a sustained spell of short-pitched bowling at the England captain seems odd."

Despite Root's eventual exit to more medium-paced Dwaine Pretorius, has the guillotine only been sharpened for the Proteas' fall in this Test?

We shall soon enough see ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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