Rory Burns repels South Africa to give England hope in fourth innings

England

England 181 and 121 for 1 (Burns 77*) need a further 255 to beat South Africa 284 and 272 (van der Dussen 51, Archr 5-102)

True to their hard-earned reputation for perversity, England’s cricketers gave themselves a fighting chance of victory in the first Test at Centurion, mere hours after seemingly tossing away their only opportunity in one of the most wasteful morning sessions of recent memory.

With Rory Burns once again to the fore, unbeaten on 77- the eighth time out of 11 that he had been the man to produce a half-century at the top of the batting order – England strode to the close on 121 for 1, after an evening session of improbable serenity, punctured only by the lapse in concentration that ended Dom Sibley’s innings of 29 from 90 balls, and an opening stand of 92 that spanned 28 overs.

With two days to come, and 255 still required with nine wickets standing, one of these two sides is sure to head to Cape Town in the new year with a 1-0 lead in the series. And England, still a little bit giddy from their exploits at Headingley in the summer, will know that even a run-chase of 376 – 125 more than has ever previously been achieved at this venue – cannot be considered completely out of their reach.

After all, most of the men still to come in the middle order – Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow in particular – have spent the past four years making such chases seem commonplace in white-ball cricket at least, and perhaps relish the clarity that comes with a distinct endgame to their endeavours.

But this is also the side that has fallen in a batting heap on more occasions that they’d care to count in recent years – Mirpur 2016, Auckland 2017, Trent Bridge 2018, Bridgetown 2019, and the first innings of that self-same contest at Headingley in August, to name but a few. This could go down to the wire, or be all over by lunch. Neither upshot would be quite as eyebrow-raising as a common-or-garden 95-run defeat by mid-afternoon.

And in that context, it perhaps should not be surprising that England’s gains in an uplifting evening were offset by one of the worst mornings of Test cricket that even this yin-and-yang rabble has ever yet produced.

Having come into the third day with the stated aim of limiting South Africa’s lead to a manageable 300 (and how cushty would their overnight position seem had they done that?), England threw caution to the wind, tactics to the bin, and hope to the outer rim as Rassie van der Dussen, on debut, and Anrich Nortje, a nightwatchman with a previous Test best of 5 not out, thwarted their advances in a fifth-wicket stand of 91 that ate up the first 90 minutes of the day.

England, in some mitigation, were clearly distracted by dressing-room issues – or more accurately, issues in the field hospital-turned-“quarantine” where both Buttler and, for a time, the captain Root were housed after becoming the latest members of the camp to succumb to the unshakeable virus that has been plaguing the squad for a fortnight.

Buttler didn’t take the field at all – he was replaced behind the stumps by the man he replaced behind the stumps, Jonny Bairstow (who had replaced the man who had replaced the man behind the stumps, Ollie Pope, when he too fell ill on the eve of the game). And though Root did reappear in a game attempt to reattach his side’s wobbly wheels, he looked like death warmed up as South Africa took full toll.

Most fundamentally, England bowled too short – blatently neglecting the line-and-length wiles that had earned Vernon Philander the first-innings figures of 4 for 16. And while this could partly be attributed to a lack of leadership, that didn’t exactly excuse the influence – or lack thereof – of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, whose combined 285-Test, 1000-plus wickets of experience surely includes the odd scenario that might have aided their game-plans in such circumstances.

Indeed it was telling that, at the eventual fall of Nortje for a feisty 40 – caught at short leg as Jofra Archer banged another one into his hip – Broad and Ben Stokes were seen having a pretty frank discussion in the team huddle. It ended with a conciliatory fist-bump, but also with Stokes taking the ball for his first over of the day, and immediately serving up a bouncer, length-ball one-two that scalped Dwaine Pretorius almost before he had begun.

England leaked 125 runs in the morning while claiming three wickets – among them van der Dussen for a debut half-century of immense resolve – and a further 75 thereafter, as Quinton de Kock and Philander took up the cudgels for their side – not least against the hapless Archer, whose pace was restored to familiar extremes but whose methods came in for mockery from de Kock in particular, who set himself for the short ball and launched him high and mightily over the ropes for consecutive sixes in a 37-ball 34 that only ended when Stokes, once more, found his edge from another length ball.

At least Archer finished the innings with his second five-wicket haul and first overseas – an important milestone for a man who managed just two wickets in as many matches in New Zealand last month – but it was a pyrrhic victory in the circumstances, as he became the fourth bowler in Test history to claim a five-wicket haul while conceding a run-a-ball or more. The final insult to England’s performance came from the slap-happy Kagiso Rabada, who belted Sam Curran onto the grass in a 12-ball 16, before Philander, four runs shy of a richly deserved fifty, snagged another high bouncer from Curran through to the keeper.

And so the focus switched once again to England’s batting … and for the fourth time in as many innings, the umpire’s finger went up in the very first over. But whereas James Anderson’s wickets had stood in both innings, Rabada was denied by DRS for the second time running, as Burns (who escaped had escaped first-ball on Friday) successfully reviewed an lbw decision that was shown to be missing off.

And thereafter, a curious serenity came across England’s batting. Burns eased into his day’s work with a series of punches through the covers and a brace of clips off the pads from Nortje – although he had a second stroke of luck on 20 when de Kock dived across van der Dussen at first slip, who spilled a low edge off the luckless Philander.

At the other end, Sibley settled in as the most junior of partners – content to watch his off stump like a hawk and let as much sail by as possible, which is an under-rated tactic against bowlers of South Africa’s quality. He dragged himself into double figures with his first boundary, a clip off Nortje, from his 41st delivery, and had just seemed to be finding his feet at Test level when he scuffed a long-hop from the spinner Keshav Maharaj straight back to the bowler.

Joe Denly, however, was still in situ at the close, providing yet more improbable solidity from the No.3 position that he is slowly but surely making his own. No-one else in the team wants it, of course, which epitomises the issues that England’s Test cricket has had for the past four years. But somehow, in spite of everything, they are making a fist of this contest. Albeit a ham-fisted one.

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