Desperate times have fans baying for blood

South Africa

“Hit him again,” came the cry from an exasperated South African supporter, as Anrich Nortje geared up to deliver the final ball of his sixth over, eight minutes after his previous delivery, which sconed Zak Crawley on the helmet.

It was hardly a classy piece of advice for the quick bowler – and the Wanderers crowd are not known for their hospitality to opposition teams – but it was also the only one South African fans could come up with. They were desperate.

It was 28 overs into the England innings, and South Africa had nothing. Even the somethings they could have had were nothings.

When Dom Sibley was given out after what looked like a strangle down the legside from Beuran Hendricks, he reviewed and was found not to have made any contact with the ball. Four overs later, Sibley steered Vernon Philander straight to gully but even as Temba Bavuma and Faf du Plessis were celebrating Bavuma’s catch, the rest were watching Joel Wilson’s signal for a no-ball. Sibley was on 10 the first time, and 12 the second. He was on 29 by the time Crawley was hit. The growing impatience, from people who waited more than three hours just to see some play, was understandable. And it spoke to a wider restlessness that can be felt rumbling through the cricket community in this country.

Although fans have been told, repeatedly, that rebuilding the South Africa team is going to take a few years, the fast-forward nature of the changes that took place mid-December, the win at SuperSport Park and the fight at Newlands promised a quick-fix. But since then, South Africa have been teetering on the brink of free-fall. And that’s not an exaggeration.

Consider that the last time South Africa lost three successive Test series was in 2004-5 when they were defeated by Sri Lanka, India (both away) and England (at home). They have already lost to the first two in this run, made worse by the fact that the failing against Sri Lanka came at home. Should they lose the Wanderers Test, they will have repeated that sequence of defeats, which came at a time when South Africa had options. Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn were at the beginning of their careers, and competition for places was steep.

Now, South Africa are searching for options, so much so that in their last 10 Tests dating back to the Wanderers fixture a year ago, 11 players have made their debuts. Not only is that effectively a whole team, but it literally could have been. There have been top-order batsmen, Pieter Malan, Zubayr Hamza and Rassie van der Dussen, middle-order players like Heinrich Klaasen (also a wicket-keeper), two spin-bowling allrounders, Senuran Muthusamy and George Linde two seam-bowling allrounders, Dwaine Pretorius and Wiaan Mulder and three specialist seamers, Dane Paterson, Hendricks and Nortje. Technically that makes up a team, and it’s not a bad team, but it wouldn’t be South Africa’s first choice.

That five of the rookies are playing this Test tells you how much experience South Africa lack. That two of them, Pretorius and Paterson, effectively do the same thing, and the same as another member of the XI, Philander, speaks to a selection conundrum that South Africa have only become more tied up in since Port Elizabeth. There, they used Paterson and Philander, who opened the bowling despite the presence of Kagiso Rabada, and were equally ineffective on a slow pitch. Here, they brought in Pretorius as well, in place of Keshav Maharaj.

Their decision to go without a spinner might appear to be vindicated by England’s choice to do the same but with England scoring at 3.5 runs an over, it begs the question over where South Africa expect sustained control to come from. Maharaj can hold up an end all day, while Philander, Paterson and Pretorius can only do it in bursts, and not always to the same effect. They’re all medium pace and in Rabada’s absence, that makes the lack of bite in the attack, more obvious.

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South Africa had a flat morning session, the third in a row when they have been in the field and have not taken a wicket. Hendricks acknowledged they bowled “too full,” and were not as aggressive as they should have been. That changed post-tea. Sibley was eventually caught down the leg-side off Hendricks, ending the first century stand at this venue since 2013.

Philander produced a vintage dismissal when he had Crawley caught at first slip, hanging his bat out to the perfect fourth-stump delivery and Paterson had Denley, who was dropped twice, eventually caught at slip. But it’s the wicket of Ben Stokes that will give South Africa the most confidence.

Nortje drew Stokes forward as he pushed across, took the edge and van der Dussen, who started this series with several drops, pouched his third, high and to his left. The Wanderers crowd knew the importance of the wicket and some of them took to heckling Stokes as he departed. One of them said something he really didn’t like.

“Come say that to to me outside the ground, you f***ing four-eyed c***,” came the reply from Stokes, caught on camera. The repercussions will be known in the coming hours (or days). The fact that it was said at the opposite end of the day to the barb the came from the grandstand tells the story of the ebb and flow of a prickly start to the finale.

England would probably consider themselves ahead had they not lost 4 for 50 in the second session but South Africa will know that the mini-collapse is a sign of what could come on a pitch that is expected to quicken up, especially given the condition of their line-up.

But there’s a third factor here, that could end up playing a role, however small, in how this series ends: the Johannesburg crowd. They don’t come in the numbers the Barmy Army does or with the pleasantries of the St George’s Park band. They are bunch that don’t shy away from causing a bit of trouble, and won’t stand for any that’s given back to them.

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