To the relief of a nation, whose cricket has been in crisis, South Africa defeated England by 107 runs at Centurion. In fact England did not lose this match on the final day. It was their batting on the second afternoon and their bowling on the third morning that gifted the initiative to the South Africans, who held their nerve and discipline thereafter. The wickets were shared among the South African bowlers but maybe the decisive contribution on a bowler friendly surface came from Quinton de Kock, the highest runscorer in the match.
England were severely handicapped by a flu bug rampaging through their ranks during this match, which affected not only their preparations, but also the well-being of some of the players during the game. Even so they will acknowledge that they were woefully inconsistent in certain passages of a contest that was always captivating, given that batting was never a straightforward operation. They need to recover fast physically and mentally before the Cape Town Test on 3rd January.
For all their battling England never managed to get their noses in front on the final day. The South Africans remained patient and persistent. On Sunday morning 50 runs were scored for the loss of two wickets, quite a contrast to the 124 conceded by England in the first session on Saturday. Vernon Philander began with a string of maidens and there were just two scoring strokes in the first half hour, both from the bat of Joe Denly, a glide for 4 and a rather magnificent pulled six off Kasigo Rabada.
Rory Burns could not rediscover the fluency of the previous evening. His first single was perilous, a push to short leg left him out of his crease and the throw from substitute, Rudi Second, missed the stumps and produced an overthrow. There would not be many more runs for Burns. Perhaps relieved that the drip drip torture when facing Philander had come to an end, Burns attempted to pull the second delivery of the day from Anrich Nortje and could only splice it gently to mid on.
Denly played two more eye-catching pull shots but then departed lbw to Dwaine Pretorius as he attempted to drive on the leg side. As is increasingly the case Denly had looked the part, technically sound, temperamentally composed without being able to produce a really significant innings. Mind you, it was not straightforward out there as Root was about to discover. He was hit on the hand and the wrist by lifters from Nortje as England crawled to the interval.
The tempo increased in the half-hour after lunch. Keshav Maharaj was summoned and his first over yielded three boundaries as Stokes came out of his shell vis a sweep and a lofted extra cover drive. Thirty runs came in five overs, but then Maharaj struck, which prompted an Imran Tahir-style celebration. The dismissal of Stokes now triggers such a reaction. Stokes had tried to late cut a ball that turned before hitting the stumps via a thin edge. Now the South Africans began to breathe more easily even though Root was still displaying great judgement at the other end.
Jonny Bairstow survived until Rabada took the second new ball. He clipped the first delivery from Rabada majestically to the square leg boundary; the next was a wide swinging half-volley, which attracted Bairstow’s attention. He sliced it hard but straight into the safe hands of Zubayr Hamza in the gully.
Soon the South Africans were entitled to scent their first victory in six Test matches. Root may not have been 100% fit but he had battled with much skill and resolution, seizing every opportunity to score off the shorter deliveries while combatting the good ones. But on 48 he pushed forward to the unrelenting Nortje and edged to De Kock behind the stumps.
England had to resort to Plan B, which, without the window dressing, was to hit and hope. But that did not work terribly well. Curran sliced a couple of boundaries but was loitering on the crease when Rabada pitched up and he was caught behind. Jofra Archer may have an eye for a white ball but not yet a red one in Test cricket; he was soon caught at slip. Jos Buttler was stranded and managed a few spectacular shots as game sprinted to its close.