England made steady progress on day three in Johannesburg as Joe Root made his second half century of the match to take the game away from South Africa.
The tourists set Faf du Plessis’s side a surely insurmountable 466 to win, with Root’s 58 the anchor as England went about putting 248 on the board.
Wood stars again as England bowl hosts out
Day three started with a five wicket haul and ended with a five wicket haul- the first belonging to Mark Wood, the second of his career. South Africa began the day six wickets down and it quickly became seven. Chris Woakes took the first over of the day and Vernon Philander got through his shot too early, aiming to work the ball onto leg side but instead slicing it to Stuart Broad at mid off.
Then Ben Stokes, never one to settle for being out of the action, made the breakthrough after Dwaine Pretorius and Quinton de Kock combined for 23 overs and 79 runs to frustrate the tourists. Stokes struck just before lunch, dislodging Pretorius at the point when the partnership was moving from mildly irritating to genuinely frustrating, and from then England didn’t look back.
Wood then took it upon himself to dismiss the other half of the only real resistance England had encountered, just two overs later. A 90mph length ball nipped between a flashy de Kock drive and pinged into the leg bail, breaking it in half as well as breaking de Kock’s defences. The Durham pacer wrapped up his haul in his next over as another rapid length ball saw Dane Paterson caught behind. Just rewards for a superb effort from Wood.
Middle order fail to light the fireworks but England do enough
From then on, it was a case of how much England could make the hosts suffer. As it turns out, not as much as might have been expected. Another 50 partnership was racked up as Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley patiently saw off the new ball- Crawley couldn’t cash in as Pretorius had him caught behind, undone by the extra bounce. England sort of stuttered their way through the innings after that, making hard work of steady progress but still managing to get out of reach of any fourth innings effort the Proteas could begin to imagine.
The tourists were largely kept in check by a maiden five wicket haul from Beuran Hendricks on debut. He was undoubtedly the pick of the seamers in this innings, aided a tad by the desire of Stokes and Sam Curran to move things on at a faster rate. Paterson had bowled Joe Denly through the gate, finding the relatively immovable object actually quite moveable for once, before Sibley rather tamely clipped Hendricks to a shortish mid-wicket. After that wickets weren’t too hard to come by for South Africa as frenetic cameos from Stokes and Sam Curran, sandwiching two quick wickets of Ollie Pope and Jos Buttler, added some spark to a floundering innings before being ended by Hendricks.
Neither Pope or Buttler really got going, both accounted for by Anrich Nortje. Buttler in particular disappointed in the exact kind of situation that he is supposed to thrive in- instead undone by a lack of foot movement as he tried to mow Nortje through the offside. It could well be the last time he is seen in test whites for some while.
At the other end, Root’s lack of fluency was, in an odd way, providing a sort of anchor for the innings. Perhaps realising that his plan to bat time was now rather redundant, the captain tried to pluck a T20 style innings but instead his attempts to be a bit more expansive often missed the bat and met thin air. By the time he did connect with one- and boy did he, sending Pretorius flying over cow corner for a mighty six- he had already reached his half century.
Hendricks's haul keeps the tourists in check
It speaks volumes of his ability to keep the scoreboard ticking over that even though Root’s T20 world cup audition wasn’t exactly the smoothest of performances, he still reached 50 off 89 balls and was still England’s highest scorer on a pitch that seems to have become ever so slightly up and down- good news for the skiddy pace of Wood, whose cameo of 18 off 12 once again showed off his improved batting.
But the evening session, really, belonged to Hendricks. Having picked up Sibley, Stokes and Curran, the left armer then had Woakes caught behind for a second ball duck before Root’s attempted slap through the offside found a flying du Plessis at gully. It was a stunning catch, a fitting way to wrap up Hendricks’s debut haul.
England will bat better than they did today, but no one can reasonably hold this innings against them- two days left, defending 465, is hardly a bad place to be. Perhaps being caught between batting for time and batting for a declaration was their undoing, but it difficult to say they have been undone when for the third test in a row England have comprehensively outplayed South Africa.
All that remains to be seen now is how long the hosts can hold out for on a pitch that looks just that little bit harder to bat on than it did for the first two days. England’s all-seam attack, meanwhile, will relish the opportunity to have a second go at the most frail of batting line ups. No doubt Root’s men have work to do to compete in India and Australia, but the progress they have made is far quicker than anyone could have predicted. South Africa’s second innings is an opportunity for this new look England to really show off what they can do.