Oops, Proteas get wrong guy's tail up

Dom Bess (Getty Images)
Dom Bess (Getty Images)

Cape Town - Two wickets in his first six overs for England's inexperienced lone frontline spinner Dom Bess ... hardly the ideal way to start drawing him into a Keshav Maharaj-like examination of durability.

That was one of several adverse events for South Africa to chew on overnight as they played pronounced second fiddle on day two of the third Test at St George's Park on Friday.

The staunchest of Proteas supporters might be prepared to acknowledge that it seemed ominously like a series-swaying one in the tourists' favour, a situation greatly aggravated by the revelation early in play that champion SA strike bowler Kagiso Rabada - whether rightly or wrongly - has been banned from the final Test at the Wanderers next week.

Before they even begin to weigh up the ramifications of that, head coach Mark Boucher and lieutenants have a major job on their hands just to coax enough resilience from an increasingly low-on-confidence, footsore home side to save the Friendly City tussle.

Fuelled by dashing centuries from both first-timer Ollie Pope and a more regular SA nemesis in Ben Stokes, England thumped their way to a firm first-innings "insurance" total of 499 for nine declared in 152 overs.

It needed a defiant, revitalising and ideally wicketless reply in the final session if the Proteas were going to feel chipper by the close about their chances of depriving Joe Root’s outfit of their 20-wickets task to win ... and with Dean Elgar and Pieter Malan posting 50 without any major alarm, that appeared quite feasible.

But in fading light and as a fresh bout of rain approached, the soft surrender of both Malan and No 3 Zubayr Hamza to Bess in reasonably quick succession left South Africa on shaky ground anew at 60 for two when the players came off - still a long way from the initial requirement target (exactly 300) of avoiding exposure to a follow-on possibility.

The surface is widely considered to be unfavourable to the quicker bowlers, hugely marking up in value the role of the spinners in this Test.

Confirmation of that came through Maharaj's exhausting weight of overs - a perverse punishment, in some senses, for how well he largely bowled - in England’s lengthy innings: 58 alone, 30 overs more than any other compatriot (Rabada sent down 28).

In doing so, the lean KwaZulu-Natalian left-armer bagged his sixth five-wicket career haul (5/180) in Tests, and the most hard-earned one yet in workload needed to achieve it.

It was the most overs he has sent down in a single innings across the space of 55 of them for national cause, and the fourth time he has been asked to deliver 50 overs or more.

His economy rate (still decent enough at 3.10) would have been a really glowing one, too, had it not been for copping some happy-go-lucky treatment at the back end of his duty from tail-ender Mark Wood and others as England sought late, fast runs to get them close to the 500-mark before mercifully declaring.

Commentator Mark Nicholas fittingly lauded Maharaj's "Herculean effort" and it was a good riposte to those a little prematurely fearing he was a fading force after a handful of fairly inauspicious appearances in Test whites.

The spotlight has now fallen on the more diminutive Bess, a 22-year-old offie who hails from unfashionable Devon, to quite probably lead England's attack in the remainder of the match.

In just his fourth Test match, the Proteas will be hoping - though the portents are already looking a bit bleaker after that twin late afternoon strike - that he is subjected to roughly the same degree of "marathon" as Maharaj was.

That could yet transpire, although the surface is gripping and taking turn to an increasingly noticeable extent, and England are also blessed by useful back-up assistance in the slow-bowling department from Root and Joe Denly.

Boucher said immediately after Friday's slightly harrowing day for his charges: "There are runs out there if you apply yourself. Our game plan against Bess has got to be really solid ... there's not much in it for the seamers."

Alas, that game plan has already revealed a couple of fractures, and Bess delightedly knows it.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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