South Africa beat England by 107 runs to take 1-0 series lead – as it happened

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “South Africa beat England by 107 runs to take 1-0 series lead – as it happened” was written by Rob Smyth (morning session) and Tom Davies (afternoon session), for theguardian.com on Sunday 29th December 2019 13.28 UTC

1.28pm GMT

Summing up

So farewell 2019, a never-uneventful year for cricket in general and English cricket in particular. Even by this country’s quirky standards, some memorable heights have been hit and some 90s-esque depths have been hinted at. And South Africa thoroughly deserve to take a series lead to Cape Town; they bowled with more discipline and better plans, they seized what opportunities they had with the bat in conditions that weren’t always easy, and generally did stuff that England failed to do. The first-innings batting was sloppy, and even after a better effort second time around, there was little sense that they’d be able to dig in for an improbable win. The toss choice and team choice still suggest a lack of conviction in strategy and personnel. Both teams are in kind-of new eras though, all of which makes the rest of this series intriguing.

And with that, and Vic Marks’s match report below, I’ll wish you the happiest of new years on behalf of all of us in OBO Towers. Thanks for your emails and company. Bye.

Updated at 1.30pm GMT

1.21pm GMT

Some thoughts from Chris Silverwood: “It was a difficult challenge, we did have high hopes, we didn’t score many runs. The openers gave us a chance – I know Dom [Sibley] was disappointed to get out on 29 and he was part and parcel of that partnership that had us here today with a hope of winning.

“When we got here the wicket was a bit damp and it did something most of the day, and we thought day two and three would be the best days to bat, and day three was.” On Test selections for Cape Town: “We’ve got to see how Leach recovers [from illness], we’ve got Parky [Matt Parkinson] here, Bess here, we have some good spinners here so we’ll see.

On the bowlers’ loss of control yesterday: “The plan was to hit top of off as often as possible, tyough obviously we strayed away from that a bit before lunch yesterday. [With Jofra Archer] we’re getting there to be honest, I was in the middle again with him this morning working on use of the crease. First-innings runs is something we have to work on, we didn’t think it would be as difficult on day two as it was. Illness has been very tough but we can’t use that as an excuse.

“Overton and Bess will remain in the squad, on the advice of the medical squad, and they’ll travel to Cape Town with us.”

1.18pm GMT

Joe Root speaks: “It’s been a really tough week off the field – 10 guys going down ill, but credit to everyone; they’ve stood up, and tried to put in the best performance possible. It’s not been long since we’ve seen similar chases from a similar group of players. We were in a good position at lunch with me and Ben there, and needed to negotiate new ball afterwards. But the game was won and lost with the seven for 39 collapse in the first innings, though good to bounce back and bat better in the second innings.

“The toss was a 50-50 call, you get a side 111-5 and you think you’ve got ahead of the game, but credit to them, they played very well. Archer is a huge talent, still at the start of his Test career, and responded well after a difficult tour of New Zealand, where he had a lot thrown at him.

Faf du Plessis is up next: “The last couple of months has been tough for us, we’ve worked very hard, this was a good Test, two teams fighting all the way. Today’s effort was incredible, from the start, and the wickets came eventually. It’s the start of a new chapter for us and we want to make sure we’re improving and move up again, it’s going to be a long journey to get there. Philander was phenomenal, day one and two was best for bowlers, yesterday the best day to bat, and even today, was better for batting. We did the basics really well, and kept it tight.

De Kock is man of the match: “They bowled very well on the first day, but it was nice to get out there and contribute some runs in a tough situation,” he says. “To be honest when I was out [batting in the first innings] there I thought I had to leave well, my mind was doing all sorts of things, but I needed to get a good rhythm and take it from there.

12.57pm GMT

Some feedback, inevitably; some Bairstow and Foakes chat, inevitably: Maybe we should look at the England wicketkeeper issue like a school exam multipule choice question,” writes Dan Hunt. “Pick one of the following three to bat at No 7 for England in a Test series. Your selection will also keep wicket for the side: A) An experienced professional with a test career of two halves. His early appearances were successful and productive. His later performances offered diminishing returns as the inadvertent price of becoming the world’s best ODI opener.B) An experienced white ball cricketer with a level head on his shoulders and the ability to regular transform limited overs games. His red ball record is minimal but has shown some glimpses of the destructive prowess he so regularly shows in other formats.C) A first class regular although a few years younger than the other other two choices. Widely acknowledged as the best wicketkeeper in England his batting, he has, on his limited international appearances so far has tended to over deliver against expectations. Seems to me like we should be moving on to option C….”

12.55pm GMT

Who’ll be man of the match then? De Kock for his catches and decisive first-innings rescue act? Rabada for his seven wickets? Philander for his metronomic precision? Nortje and Petersen also played key roles in what was a fine all-round team effort. England, meanwhile, end 2019 having won only four Tests, one of which was a dead rubber, another being an almost-dead one, and one of the others being one of the greatest things that has ever happened in any sporting arena ever. Typical England.

Updated at 12.55pm GMT

12.52pm GMT

The South African players are high-fiving each other gleefully here, and why not: this win brings some much-needed feelgood glow to South African cricket after a pretty horrendous 2019, on and off the pitch. Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher and co might contribute to that, after a fine first Test overseeing things. And they’ve been on top of England ever since that second-afternoon collapse. It was a poor decision to bowl first, but their lack of all-round longevity as a Test batting unit makes them hard to rely on whatever the circumstances.

12.46pm GMT

Wicket! Broad b Rabada 6, England 268 all out. South Africa win by 107 runs

93rd over: England 268 (Anderson 0), target 376 Buttler has only one option now – hit, and hit hard, which he does to spectacular effect off the first ball of Rabada’s over, belting it high over long-on and into the grass banks for SIX, but it doesn’t last because he’s caught in the deep next ball. Broad hoiks the next, shortish ball for two to get off the mark, and promptly inside-edges for another couple. England aren’t going to die wondering anyway, as Broad then spoons up another chance that just eludes a diving Maharaj on the offside, before he’s clean bowled to clean up the match

Updated at 12.49pm GMT

12.44pm GMT

Wicket! Buttler c Pretorius b Rabada 22, England 262-9

Buttler has decided an attacking frenzy is the only route to a miracle, and clouts the first ball of Rabada’s over for six, but perishes trying the same thing next ball, skying up in the air for Pretorius to take a steepler at long-on.

12.39pm GMT

92nd over: England 256-8 (Buttler 16, Broad 0), target 376 Archer expresses his confidence in Archer by running a single off the first ball of Nortje’s over. But it’s not repaid as the No 9 is done for pace and can only edge to slip. Nortje has three wickets, and deservedly so – his introduction has turned this game decisively in South Africa’s direction, though it was inching that way in any case. Four wickets with the new ball have removed all doubt.

12.37pm GMT

Wicket! Archer c Van der Dussen b Nortje 4, England 256-8

Archer flicks a too-quick delivery to first slip, where Van der Dussen this time takes the catch.

12.32pm GMT

91st over: England 255-7 Buttler 15, Archer 4), target 376 Curran offers a hint of what he and Buttler’s victory strategy would have been if he hadn’t edged behind a delivery after slashing Rabada over backward point for four off the first ball of the over. Archer, much-maligned as a batsman and by some even as a bowler of late, is off the mark with a four first ball. So have that.

12.30pm GMT

Wicket! Curran c De Kock b Rabada 9, England 251-7

Curran is done like a kipper by one that’s slanted across then straightens, takes his edge, and that’s him gone. Along with the game.

12.27pm GMT

90th over: England 247-6 Buttler 15, Curran 5), target 376 Because he’s the sort of cricketer he is, Sam Curran flays and edges Nortje – and it flashes through the third slip area for four. Buttler then ups the ante and plays the second classy off-drive for four of his innings, though he’s then almost caught at short leg next ball but the fielder can’t quite scramble there in time. No matter, because the next ball is casually swung for SIX – in the way only Buttler can – over the square leg boundary.

12.22pm GMT

89th over: England 232-6 Buttler 5, Curran 0), target 376 Buttler flicks at a wide one from Rabada down leg – it brushes his pads but a diving De Kock can only parry it. He’s then bothered by one that jags right back into his left thigh, off both seam and pitch-crack. England aren’t going to survive this.

Has any cricketer been discussed in a match he’s not playing in more than Ben Foakes has here? Here’s some more on that subject from Neil Brock:

“By the end of this tour with South Africa I get the feeling Ben Foakes stock will never be higher. Bairstow is under huge pressure to score and massively out of form whilst Buttler still appears shoehorned in to make up for the failings of the rest of England’s batting line-up. Despite Foakes only averaging 26 at County level last season his glovework and the fact he hasn’t failed internationally mean his name will keep coming up. Even with the circumstances around it, Pope having to keep wicket against New Zealand was a bit of a travesty and one which falls on the selectors making another short-sighted decision. At least I hope Foakes has enjoyed having his feet up over Christmas!”

Updated at 12.26pm GMT

12.18pm GMT

88th over: England 232-6 Buttler 5, Curran 0), target 376 Nortje replaces Philander, and Du Plessis’ bowling change is swiftly vindicated by Root’s dismissal, his one slightly loose shot of the session, his footwork static, though it was just the sort of ball that tempts even the finest of batsmen. Nortje comes round the wicket at the new man in, the left-handed Curran, making him play and completing a wicket maiden.

“As a dyed in the wool tyke,” writes Nick Smith (is there any other type?), “I feel obliged to defend YJB somewhat – during his and Buttler’s 100-odd tests, how often have they come in after the openers have yet again failed?” Yeah, like I said, the whole Test strategy and team has been confused.

12.14pm GMT

Wicket! Root c De Kock b Nortje 48, England 232-6

Nortje comes on and strikes second ball of his spell, just as Rabada did a few overs back, and it’s a big one, a perfectly pitched out-nibbler in the corridor that the England captain edges behind. That should be South Africa’s Test now.

12.10pm GMT

87th over: England 232-5 (Root 48, Buttler 5), target 376 Root cuts loose, literally, top-handing past backward point for four, again benefiting from playing late. He’s able to flick a single to leg too as batting begins to look a little easier. If these two can get to tea unscathed then … nah, forget it, I’m not going there. In a random development, a couple of England fans appear to be singing Sheffield United’s “greasy chip butty” song

12.07pm GMT

86th over: England 227-5 (Root 43, Buttler 5), target 376 A short extra-cover is brought in for Buttler, but he’s able to see out the over, judiciously leaving well at this point, and Philander’s swing too easy to pick to be tempted by. And it’s rounded off with a sumptuous, coaching-manual cover drive for four.

Updated at 12.12pm GMT

12.02pm GMT

85th over: England 223-5 (Root 43, Buttler 1), target 376 Some more variable bounce from Rabada, including the first proper bouncer with the new ball, which Root gets under comfortably enough. He’s doing the right things here, the England captain, seeing the ball late onto the bat, and judging his lines and lengths well, until the last ball of the over, which zips past him at pace and low bounce and is too close for him to cut. Rabada the better of the two opening bowlers at this point.

Updated at 12.03pm GMT

11.59am GMT

84th over: England 223-5 (Root 43, Buttler 1), target 376 Philander doesn’t make Buttler play enough in this over, granting the batsman some handy leaving practice. Another maiden.

Their presence is more a reflection of England’s confused strategy towards Test cricket for the past four years, and a lack of an obvious first-choice red-ball XI during that time. Moeen’s loss of form feels a big part of this.

11.55am GMT

83rd over: England 223-5 (Root 43, Buttler 1), target 376 Rabada is discomforting England here, though Buttler manages to squeeze a single to get himself off the mark. Root, at least, is batting sensibly though, getting himself out of the way of the trickiest stuff.

The Bairstow chat begins: “I count myself a huge admirer of Jonny,” enumerates Tim Sanders, “and I thought it was a fair call to drop him for Tests with the requirement to rediscover his technique for first-class cricket. What then seemed daft was to recall him as soon as someone else got ill or injured. If the judgement is that he has work to do, then how does another player’s fitness change that?” He’s certainly now at that stage of his Test career where every failure will be considered damning rather than an aberration. He’s not looked Test-standard here, certainly.

11.49am GMT

82nd over: England 222-5 (Root 43, Buttler 0), target 376 Philander returns from the Pavilion End. He’s into that perfect offside-corridor groove straight away, and has Root driving and missing with a teasing away swinger. This could be a hell of a contest. A maiden.

11.44am GMT

81st over: England 222-5 (Root 43, Buttler 0), target 376 Rabada takes the new ball and his first delivery is overpitched, and Bairstow cashes in joyously, flicking through midwicket for four. But the joy doesn’t last, and YJB goes next ball – he has failed again, and at a pivotal time. Buttler is well beaten with an excellent couple of inswingers first up. This is a massive innings for him too, now, and he’s had a proper working over already with his first four deliveries faced.

Given how England fell away at five down in the first innings, South Africa are emphatic favourites now.

11.40am GMT

Wicket! Bairstow c Hamza b Rabada 9, England 222-5

Rabada strikes with the second ball with the new nut! Bairstow had clipped the first for four but then edges a tempting wide away-swinger to third slip, where Hamza takes a good sharp catch on the rise.

Updated at 11.42am GMT

11.37am GMT

80th over: England 218-4 (Root 43, Bairstow 5), target 376 Pretorius doesn’t look particularly threatening at this point, and Root flicks him away for two towards square leg, before Root is well beaten and struck on the pad with the final ball with the old ball, but it’s outside the line, and Du Plessis declines the review. There’s no inside edge either, invalidating gully’s attempt to claim the catch, which bounced just before him in any case. Now is the decisive time. New ball up next.

11.33am GMT

79th over: England 216-4 (Root 41, Bairstow 5), target 376 Root eases Maharaj away for a single at the start of the spinner’s final over before the new ball is due. He has a silly point in for Bairstow, who is necessarily watchful against some accurate bowling, however much his instincts might want him to clout him over the top.

11.29am GMT

78th over: England 215-4 (Root 40, Bairstow 5), target 376 Bairstow gets to face the seamers for the first time, coping comfortably with what Pretorius has to offer but without scoring.

Some South Africa team news: Aiden Markram’s self-inflicted hand injury (how many more times must cricketers be told that a man can’t win a fight with a locker) means the uncapped Keegan Petersen has been called into their squad for the second Test.

Updated at 11.33am GMT

11.26am GMT

77th over: England 215-4 (Root 40, Bairstow 5), target 376 Another so-so over from Maharaj brings two singles. Meanwhile Abhijato Sensarma has a seasonal rhyme for us, which may or may not jinx things, depending on your affiliations:

No jokes, Ben Stokes was the biggest of England’s hopes

The spinner has tried to be the dream killer and make them hang onto their last ropes

’Once a year is enough’ – the Proteas must be musing about their Durban choke

But England have an affinity for tragedy as well as comedy, that’s no joke

The new batsman should be nowhere near the Test side, but here he is instead of Ollie Pope

Criticism, omission and straight balls are things with which he cannot cope

But the man also has a point to prove like his skipper, so naysayers – lie low

If there’s an unlikely Christmas hero the world deserves, it’s Jonny Bairstow

11.23am GMT

76th over: England 213-4 (Root 39, Bairstow 4), target 376 Pretorius comes on for Nortje, but can’t find the same venom as his predecessor from that end, though he does have a shout for lbw against Root, shuffling across his stump, but it still looks to be going down leg, and too high, and the umpires are rightly haveing none of it.

11.19am GMT

75th over: England 212-4 (Root 39, Bairstow 4), target 376 Bairstow is gifted another Maharaj loosener from which to get off the mark, and the cut is emphatic and bound for the ropes. An easy four. There’s plenty in the pitch for the spinner, as you’d expect at this stage of the game, but he’s not quite found the control needed. Yet he’s still changed the mood with a key wicket, and deserves to continue until the new ball.

Updated at 11.20am GMT

11.16am GMT

74th over: England 208-4 (Root 39, Bairstow 0), target 376 South Africa’s dander is suddenly up, and Root’s mood is scarcely improved by, first, a grubber that he can get nowhere near from Nortje; second, another that spits off the surface and straight into his sensitive regions, and third a more orthodox away-swinger that beats him all ends up. But he survives them, and then flicks a stray ball down legside backward of square which beats the man on the boundary to bring four more. A tremendous over of Test match cricket, that.

11.12am GMT

73rd over: England 204-4 (Root 35, Bairstow 0), target 376 I’d just typed that Maharaj isn’t on top of things at all yet, after another short and loose one was worked away easily by Root for a single, before he only goes and bowls Stokes with one that turns in sharply at the left-hander. That’ll learn me for banging on about Headingley and Perera. So now, let the YJB arguments begin! Which is what we’re all here for after all.

11.09am GMT

Wicket! Stokes b Maharaj 14, England 204-4

Maharaj brings one back into Stokes, who drags it onto his stumps. That came from nowhere.

11.07am GMT

72nd over: England 203-3 (Root 34, Stokes 14), target 376 Just as England may be buoyed by talk of Headingley as they go after this large target, you wonder if South Africa are haunted by their own fourth-innings nightmare this year, at the hands of Kusal Perera. Stokes flicks Nortje away for a well-run two and sees out the rest of the over comfortably enough.

Updated at 11.07am GMT

11.03am GMT

71st over: England 201-3 (Root 34, Stokes 12), target 376 Philander is dragged from that end, and replaced by Maharaj as Du Plessis seeks some spin magic with the old ball. Stokes is after him from the off though, sweeping his first ball to the square leg boundary for four and clouting the fourth through the covers for another boundary. The first real sign of cutting loose from the newly gonged all-rounder. Root rounds off a highly productive over with an effortless cut for four more to take England past 200. England need “only” 175 more now.

10.58am GMT

70th over: England 188-3 (Root 30, Stokes 4), target 376 Nortje continues to get some brutish bounce from the pitch, rapping Root in the wrist with a short one speared down the onside. A fuller delivery enables the captain to add two runs, followed by a classy flick through midwicket for four. Dare I say it, but this has been an encouraging start to the afternoon for England.

10.54am GMT

69th over: England 182-3 (Root 24, Stokes 4), target 376 The magic mallet comes out again to bang down a divot by the crease at the bowler’s end, before Philander’s first ball – a real loosener, short and wide – is cut emphatically for four by Root, who scampers a single next ball. Philander is not looking so menacing from this end.

“I’ve read every BTL comment on every cricket article since about 2005, and it hasn’t done me any harm,” writes James Debens, from behind a 14-year-old pile of washing up and pizza boxes, before ruining my gag with a pay-off of his own. “In fact, the wondrous insights, perspicacity and clear thinking of the BTL community have helped the years fly by, here at Rampton.”

Updated at 10.54am GMT

10.48am GMT

68th over: England 177-3 (Root 19, Stokes 4), target 376 The impressive Nortje returns from the Pavilion End. Root glides a shortish ball elegantly down to third man for a single – he’s looking Ok for a sick bloke – before Nortje torments Stokes from round the wicket again, ripping an absolute zinger away from his outside edge. This is going to be a tricky challenge for Stokes.

10.44am GMT

67th over: England 176-3 (Root 18, Stokes 4), target 376 The excellent Philander starts off the session, but from the opposite end to that from which he operated this morning. He relishes bowling at Root, though he’ll need a breather before the second new ball. He concedes a four though, Root timing an on-drive exquisitely past mid-on. There’s a bit of uneven bounce again, though I thought this pitch would be much more unplayable by now at the end of day two.

10.38am GMT

Before we return to the action, one more sage suggestion from Adrian Goldman: “I suggest Pasta-pesto with a salad. Dead simple, avoids all the hated food groups and – if you make your own pesto – you can add enough garlic to make sure that people leave soon after lunch. Problem sorted.
Adrian
(I am contributing content so moving the dial…)”

Personally, I would say the internet contains more content than consumption. Has anyone who has ever contributed to a 1,578-comment long debate actually read the previous 1,577 for example? Face it, people – we’re all howling into the void.

Updated at 10.38am GMT

10.31am GMT

Mike Waters has some more serious cricketing thoughts to offer:

hi Rob, I have had the mixed fortune to be able to watch every ball from my recliner and also have empathy with the virus stricken by catching what may be the same affliction being suffered by the sqaud.

Having had to drag myself into work for Christmas day to cover a preareanged shift, fortunately spent mainly alone in an office, I have to commend anyone who has even managed to put whites on, never mind be involved on 90mph bowling in any capacity while fighting the most debiliating bug I can recall in my life.

Looking at the batting to come, it struck me just how little Branderson appear to contribute to the team when not bowling these days. Both are talented batsmen and fielders, Jimmy perhaps only second to Stokes in the slips. Both unfortunately give the impression that batting is no more than a hinderence and their place on the fielding team is where they are least likely to see the ball. This from a man with a proper test ton and another with plenty of evidence of talent, and they should be batting 8 and 10 in this side, not leaving Archer to cop the critisism for the failing tail, and taking pressure off Curran to simply bat without expectations.

Nobody since Strauss has really been strong enough with the pair, so it was refreshing to see Stokes laying down the law at Broad yesterday. Perhaps the leadership to get the best from the old stagers is there, just in the wrong role at the moment.

Broad’s batting has long been a frustrating thing, even before the Varun Aaron blow that so jolted his form. But yeah, England’s frail tail has joined the long list of Things Wrong With England’s Test Team. And responsibility needs to be taken.

10.26am GMT

Some lunchtime emails: “I thought I should come in peace before the (not so) YJB arrives at the crease and risks dividing us again,” says Brian Withington. “Think your Pareto-like odds assessment of 80:20 SA:Eng was fair at the off, but I wonder whether the fall of wickets and the recent balls to Root might have us heading towards the 89:10:1 (SA:Eng:tie) ratio which apparently is the internet lurkers principle – 89% just consume, 9% edit and only 1% actively create new content. Makes you wonder how this applies to OBO community?” As many as nine per cent edit?! Can’t say as I’ve noticed that being a particular feature of the interweb.

Meanwhile, Kim Thonger has a familiar culinary dilemma: “We have family arriving for lunch and I’m cooking risotto to break the culinary monotony of the last week. However in attendance are one vegetarian daughter, another daughter who hates mushrooms, an aunt who is allergic to prawns and two grandchildren who are appalled by rice. I can now empathise with the England selectors whose intractable problems appear to be of a similar size. We may scrap the risotto entirely and just have afters, a solution akin to cancelling all red ball cricket and focusing on The Hundred.” Nice analogy. The Hundred really is the butterscotch Angel Delight of cricketing competitions. Anyway, can’t mushroom-averse daughters usually be placated with fish fingers, and beans? They can when they’re younger anyhow.

10.18am GMT

Thanks Rob, and morning/afternoon everyone. So England need 205 in five sessions, and my inner Fred Boycott would love to see them drag this chase deep into the final day and give tomorrow’s OBOers some serious work to do. And given the sluggish rate England were forced to inch along at this morning, thanks to some excellent South African bowling, this all could still happen. Or England could be all out for 208 by half-eleven. Anyway, all to play for

10.02am GMT

Lunch

66th over: England 171-3 (Root 13, Stokes 4) Root repels Rabada’s final over before lunch without alarm. It’s been South Africa’s morning, with England scoring 50 from 25 overs for the loss of the two overnight batsmen. England need another 205 runs for a record-breaking victory. South Africa have a new ball available in 14 overs’ time, and I suspect that will be decisive.

Tom Davies will be with you for the afternoon session – you can email him here. I’ll see you after tea, unless England fall over in a heap.

Updated at 10.03am GMT

9.57am GMT

65th over: England 170-3 (Root 12, Stokes 4) Keshav Maharaj comes into the attack. That’s a good move from Faf du Plessis, just to tempt Stokes into bringing out the long handle. He slog-swept Maharaj for consecutive sixes in the first innings, and hit him for four in six balls at the Oval in 2017. This time, with the ball spitting out of rough and lunch only a few minutes away, he treats him with caution.

9.54am GMT

64th over: England 169-3 (Root 11, Stokes 4) Rabada replaces Nortje, with just over 10 minutes remaining before lunch. Stokes checks a drive back towards Rabada, who can’t quite change direction in his follow-through to take the catch. The ball dipped as well, so it was probably a one-in-20 chance. England need the lunch break. If they lose another wicket now, it’s done.

“I don’t want to send in relentlessly negative missives, Rob, but it’s tiring supporting England when you’re witnessing a near constant rearguard,” says Guy Hornsby. “Back when we were Flowering teams slowly into the dust, we had a great top five, but you also knew we could dig in, especially with Prior and Collingwood having the ability to stick at the crease. I’m just not sure where their equivalent is here. Buttler becalmed just doesn’t work out, and for all his talent Curran is a counterpuncher, who you’d never expect a gritty 120 from 270 balls. The tail also feels longish. Root and Stokes must wonder where that team’s legacy went. But when you’re struggling for wins, as we are now, it’s much harder to pick players and let them fail before they come good. Burns’ success should be a reason to keep Sibley, because also, if not him, then who?”

I think this team has a pretty similar structure to the Flower team, certainly after Collingwood’s retirement – three new-ball blunters at the top and then a load of strokemakers. They just aren’t as good. As you say, though, Flower’s team had a much better tail, possibly England’s best ever. I agree about Sibley, who should be given at least this series and the one in Sri Lanka. Yesterday’s innings was encouraging.

9.47am GMT

63rd over: England 168-3 (Root 10, Stokes 4) Stokes is beaten, flirting outside off stump at Pretorius. South Africa have been really impressive this morning. They have kept their nerve and their discipline, which in turn has allowed them keep control. England have scored 47 runs in 22 overs today, and 12 of those came from two Denly pull strokes.

9.45am GMT

62nd over: England 168-3 (Root 10, Stokes 4) Root gloves another malevolent delivery from Nortje round the corner, runs through for a single without his bat and then calls for treatment. He seems okay. When play resumes, Stokes edges short of du Plessis at second slip.

“Given the condition of the pitch, why would you choose to bowl first?” says Dan Ebanks. “I know hindsight is 20:20, but is this another example of a captain trying too hard?”

It was a mistake, and I’m sure they’ll privately acknowledge that. I suspect it was a confused decision, because of the grass on the pitch and the decision to pick five seamers. They probably thought the pitch would be much better for batting on the second day. The apparent lack of awareness of the typical deterioration of pitches at Centurion doesn’t look great.

9.45am GMT

61st over: England 166-3 (Root 9, Stokes 3)

9.33am GMT

60th over: England 164-3 (Root 9, Stokes 1) Stokes gets off the mark from his 12th delivery, working Nortje into the leg side for a single. Then a short ball flies away for four byes. Every little helps, especially when you’re chasing 376.

9.28am GMT

59th over: England 158-3 (Root 8, Stokes 0) A maiden from Pretorius to the hitherto strokeless Stokes.

9.25am GMT

58th over: England 158-3 (Root 8, Stokes 0) Root inside-edges Nortje just wide of leg stump. England cannot afford to lose another wicket before lunch. Root is then smashed on the bottom hand by a nasty delivery. The uneven bounce is now happening off the straight, which is great news for South Africa.

9.19am GMT

57th over: England 158-3 (Root 8, Stokes 0) That was another impressive little innings from Denly, though he’ll be frustrated by the way he got out. South Africa are in an excellent position now. They have bowled superbly this morning.

9.15am GMT

WICKET! England 158-3 (Denly LBW b Pretorius 31)

That’s out! Denly whips around a straight one from Pretorius and is given out LBW. The non-striker Root encourages Denly to review, but replays show it’s umpire’s call and that’s good enough for South Africa.

Updated at 9.17am GMT

9.13am GMT

56th over: England 158-2 (Denly 31, Root 8) A crap delivery from Nortje is cut through the covers for four by Root.

Meanwhile, this is great, and includes plenty of cricket.

9.08am GMT

55th over: England 153-2 (Denly 31, Root 4) Dwaine Pretorius comes on to replace Kagiso Rabada, and Denly pulls his fourth ball disdainfully through midwicket for four. He’s such an elegant puller and hooker, which is one of the reasons he has been able to make runs against such quality pace attacks in the last year. He’s the Pretty Boy Who Went to War!

Pretorius responds by getting one to spit from a length and rap Denly on the glove. Though he is the fourth seamer in this team, his height and tight line could make him a real threat on this uneven pitch.

Updated at 9.13am GMT

8.59am GMT

54th over: England 149-2 (Denly 27, Root 4) Nortje has been really impressive in this game. He’s not just a big, strapping fast bowler, as he showed with that smart spell around the wicket to the left-handers in the first innings. At the moment he has Root in his sights and is pounding a length just outside off stump. Root seems okay physically, though it’s hard to be sure when you’re 8,871 miles away. He gets off the mark with a familiar steer between slip and gully for four. Risk, meet reward.

That’s drinks.

Updated at 9.05am GMT

8.55am GMT

53rd over: England 145-2 (Denly 27, Root 0) Denly hooks Rabada for his second six of the morning. It was a strange incident, because Nortje at deep backward square lost sight of the ball and started to cower as his team-mates screamed at him. I don’t think it made any difference, though, as the ball sailed into the crowd. Denly continues to impress both in attack and defence; he has 27 from 70 balls.

“I rate the chances an England victory as 20 times more likely to happen than Ben Foakes being called up as cover as ‘our boys’ continue to turn into human Catherine wheels,” says James Debens. “So, about 1 in 100.”

Updated at 8.57am GMT

8.51am GMT

52nd over: England 139-2 (Denly 21, Root 0) Joe Root, the new batsman, survives a pretty big LBW appeal first ball. I say pretty big: Nortje was interested, the cordon less so. It looked too high and Faf du Plessis declined a review. He is beaten later in the over by another one that keeps low. So far, happily for England, all the uneven bounce has been wide of off stump. But I suspect at least one batsman will receive a stump-busting grubber at some stage.

8.47am GMT

WICKET! England 139-2 (Burns c Rabada b Nortje 84)

Well that escalated quickly. Rory Burns, having played perfectly for 45 minutes, has suddenly given his wicket away. He tried to hook the new bowler Anrich Nortje, but it was too wide for him to control the shot and he top-edged it straight to Rabada at mid-on. That’s a big wicket for South Africa. Burns, fuming with himself, started to walk long before the ball reached Rabada. A split-second misjudgement has cost him his wicket.

Updated at 8.57am GMT

8.44am GMT

51st over: England 139-1 (Burns 84, Denly 21) This has been a fine start from England, with both batsmen showing excellent don’t say game management, Smyth, please don’t say game management, this isn’t a wildlife reserve awareness of the match situation. And it’s South Africa’s bowlers who have blinked first. Rabada twice goes too straight to Burns, who puts him away for two and three runs respectively.

“Hitting a six in a Test match?” sniffs Ian Copestake. “What the heck is this Denly man playing at. He can park that shot along with his bloody ego. Upstart.”

8.40am GMT

50th over: England 134-1 (Burns 79, Denly 21) Philander continues to test Burns’ patience and judgement outside off stump. Eventually he goes a bit too straight and is worked off the pads for a single. That’s Burns’ first run off 30 deliveries from Philander this morning.

“But did you notice Rob that he actually also started banging the pitch as much as six inches in front of the crease?” says Steve D. “Sneaky I think.”

I didn’t see that. I’ll try to have a look at the drinks break, but I wouldn’t worry too much – I’m sure the commentators would have said something had anything untoward occurred.

8.36am GMT

49th over: England 133-1 (Burns 78, Denly 21) Another unpleasant lifter from Rabada to Denly is well saved by de Kock. Rabada goes a bit straighter, in the hope for something similar, but the bounce is even and Denly works a single off the pads.

That’s the first rotation of strike this morning – and almost the end of Burns. He overbalanced as he turned Rabada to backward short leg, where the substitute Rudi Second reacted brilliantly to grab the ball on the bounce and fling it at the stumps. It missed by a whisker with Burns out of his ground.

8.29am GMT

48th over: England 131-1 (Burns 77, Denly 20) Burns hasn’t scored a run this morning, mainly because he has been stuck at Philander’s end. It’s an intriguing game of patience between the two: four overs, four maidens.

8.25am GMT

47th over: England 131-1 (Burns 77, Denly 20) Madon, what a shot from Joe Denly! Rabada’s first ball was a fraction short, and Denly launched into a majestic swivel-pull for six. Ricky Ponting could hardly have played that better. Rabada’s next ball lifts grotesquely outside off stump, with de Kock leaping to save four byes. That uneven bounce is a concern for lovers of England miracles.

“I cannot believe that what has just happened is legal!” says Steve D. “A man came on with a hammer and proceeded to smash to pitch around and in front of the crease line!! Does that not constitute changing the pitch conditions?”

If he did it on a good length, there would be an international incident, but he was just doing it to improve the bowlers’ foothold. Any delivery that pitches there will be a yorker, so it doesn’t matter what state the pitch is in.

8.21am GMT

46th over: England 125-1 (Burns 77, Denly 14) Philander continues to Burns. Drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip: a maiden. This is excellent stuff from South Africa, though England’s batsmen have so far played with the requisite patience. As Mike Atherton says on Sky, they just have to “suck it up” for a while.

“I just noticed that there are two little white lines a few metres up the edge of the track from the crease,” says Garry Sharp. “What are they for?”

Robbie Fowler tribute celebrations? I have no idea I’m afraid. I can’t even see them. Do you the mean the ones by the slip cordon? I assume that’s where the wicketkeeper de Kock wants to stand for each bowler.

8.17am GMT

45th over: England 125-1 (Burns 77, Denly 14) Rabada has an optimistic LBW appeal against Denly turned down by Paul Reiffel. Missing leg. Denly is then beaten by a delivery that keeps very low. There have been early signs of uneven bounce at Rabada’s end. South Africa will be pleased with the accuracy and intensity of their start – England have scored only four runs in four overs, and they came from an involuntary edge.

“My plan to recuperate with an Ally Pally hangover revolves around me staying on the sofa with cricket, football and darts for company,” says John Dalby. “Its success hinges on England batting through until tea. What are my chances?”

Touch and go, I’d say, but at a push you can always watch a repeat of Luke Humphries v Jermaine Wattimena from earlier in the tournament. Or just go back to bed.

8.12am GMT

44th over: England 125-1 (Burns 77, Denly 14) Philander seams a beauty past Burns’ defensive push. He has started immaculately and remains the biggest threat to England. Burns, that play and miss aside, is leaving him well outside off stump, which is not easy against a relentless line bowler like Philander. Excellent stuff so far.

“Good morning, Rob,” says Ian Copestake. “If the TV cameras do seek out ‘the beautiful, the famous or the wacky’ (The Spirit of Cricket, Rob Smyth) they may stumble across the latter in the form of an actual friend of mine who it turns out is a member of the Barmy Army. He is at the ground and may well lead some singing, and if his girlfriend has brought her ukulele then she might get upgraded to famous.”

Crikey, did I write that? I have no memory of that whatsoever. Then again, I can barely remember what I wrote in the 42nd over. And it’s all downhill from here!

8.07am GMT

43rd over: England 125-1 (Burns 77, Denly 14) Kagiso Rabada starts at the other end to Denly, who gets a thick edge to third man for four. The previous delivery popped nastily outside off stump, a reminder that this pitch hasn’t completely gone to sleep. The next 37 overs, before the second new ball is available, are so important. I reckon England can afford to lose no more than two wickets in that time.

8.03am GMT

42nd over: England 121-1 (Burns 77, Denly 10) Philander doesn’t do looseners. His first ball is right on the money and defended by Burns, and his first over is a maiden.

“Good morning Rob from bright and frosty Piedmont,” says Finbar Anslow. “Last night the South Piedmontese Christmas film appreciation society watched It’s a Wonderful Life and I can confirm it’s still up there as one of the best festive feelgood movies; now if only England had a couple of George Baileys (and maybe a Clarence would be useful).”

7.59am GMT

It’s time for some cricket. Vernon Philander will open the bowling to Rory Burns.

7.53am GMT

“Good morning, Rob,” says Eva Maaten. “After attending to family obligations in Europe we made it back to SA in time for day four of this exciting Test – I’m very grateful to Burns for ensuring there is still some cricket to be played today. Overcast and cooler today; what do you think that means for the pitch and England’s chances? We seemed to have ended up in the middle of a touring group of England fans with some very enthusiastic looking SA supporters just across the aisle – this should be a fun day!”

The Sky Sports pundits all think the cool weather is good for England because it should delay the deterioration of the pitch. I still think South Africa are strong favourites, though I’m in a minority: most reckon it’s 60/40 in their favour. I’d make it 80/20.

7.35am GMT

Joe Root and Jos Buttler are at the ground and apparently feeling better. It’s on!

7.57pm GMT

Preamble

Hello. The secret of eternal youth is not yoga, serums, goji berries or even a generous swig of Cognac every morning. It’s being an England cricket fan. You heard.

Never mind all that facial stuff: if you want to feel truly alive, and experience the kind of extreme emotions usually reserved for teens and twentysomethings, just support this team. Ecstasy, anxiety, mirth, bewilderment, rage: you get them all with England – often in the same match, sometimes in the same day.

The last 12 months have possibly been the most rejuvenating of the lot. Today should be England’s last day of cricket in 2019 – a year that has included a World Cup victory in whateverthehellthatfinalwas, a Headingley miracle, Test match scores of 67, 77 and 85 all out, the emergence of Jofra Archer and so much more. I suppose it’s only fair that they put us through this addictive wringer one last time.

All things being equal, this match will end in one of three ways for England: miserable defeat, noble defeat or astonishing victory. (Don’t mention the tie.) They will resume on 121 for one, needing a further 255 runs for victory on a strange pitch that behaved far better yesterday than on the second day.

South Africa are still healthy favourites – I’d give England a one in five chance – but both sides will be conscious of recent history: England at Headingley in August and South Africa against Kusal Perera in February.

Whatever happens, there will be moments today when we’ll all feel alive, and there won’t be a serum in sight. We might need the Cognac, though.

Updated at 7.36am GMT

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Rajesh

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