With a potent mix of flamboyant batting and superbly disciplined bowling, England ruthlessly tightened their grip on the series against an increasingly hapless South Africa. The batsmen sped along at four an over and the bowlers yielded runs at two an over, a combination which usually leads to control of a cricket match. At the end of a day that began under a blanket of grey cloud and ended in bright sunshine, South Africa were in a terrible mess on 88 for six, trailing by 312 runs.
Adopting the age-old policy of hitting a length around off stump with as much vigour as possible – a tactic strangely deserted by the South Africans – the quintet of England pace bowlers, with the irrepressible Mark Wood to the fore, took charge.
They allowed no respite and as a consequence tormented their prey on the wonderful playing surface of the Wanderers. Only Quinton de Kock, a minor genius, looked as if he could cope. The rest came and went and never suggested permanence, let alone fluency.
In fact it took 19 overs to make the breakthrough, though the openers had made little headway in that time. Then Wood propelled a 94mph beauty that brushed the outside edge of Pieter Malan’s bat.
England were in business as the newly promoted Rassie van der Dussen edged against Sam Curran, who was rhythmical and quite pacy (84mph) when bowling from the Pavilion End. As ever Dean Elgar had battled, surviving a very tough chance to Jos Buttler on eight from his inside edge. He had fended away many good deliveries but then received a poor one from Ben Stokes and slapped it gently to Chris Woakes at cover.
Next Woakes the bowler, who had been on target from the start, intervened by having a grim Faf du Plessis lbw for 3 after 29 balls of tortured crease occupation. The home crowd sang joyously for much of the afternoon but as a distraction from their team’s plight, which was to deteriorate further when Wood found the edge of Temba Bavuma’s bat before dismissing nightwatchman Anrich Nortje with the last ball of the day. South Africa had been outplayed throughout.
In the first half of the day England raced to 400 but not quite in the manner expected. The way in which Ollie Pope and Joe Root started suggested they might get there on their own. Sixty-six runs came in the first hour. At first Pope overshadowed his captain: he late-cut the pacemen rather like Root likes to do and the ball sped to the vacant third-man boundary. Pope reached his half-century in just 61 balls, which would be much quicker than Root (87 balls).
Just to remind the young pup that he could also play a bit, Root delivered a majestic pull and a deft upper cut against Nortje. During this hour the South African tactics were extraordinary, especially when Nortje was bowling. For some reason he was set a field that was leg-side orientated and which therefore demanded that he should bowl short at two of the best pullers of a cricket ball in the England team. At the Wanderers wickets come from the outside edge of the bat with catches to the keeper or the slip cordon, yet Nortje was encouraged to bang the ball in short time and time again.
Perhaps the drinks interval came to South Africa’s rescue. The first ball after the break from Nortje was fuller and Pope made his first mistake of the day. He did not withdraw his bat quickly enough so that his attempted leave cannoned on to the stumps. This dismissal meant that Pope’s average for the series slumped to 127.50. For the rest of the morning batting was much trickier, mainly because Nortje began to hit a length with just the occasional bouncer to keep them honest.
On 53 Root was dropped by Du Plessis at slip off Nortje but this would not be an expensive miss. Another fullish delivery invited the drive and this time his edge ended up in the safe gloves of De Kock. Curran now endured the pain of walking through the dreaded tunnel twice in the space of two minutes. His solitary delivery was a very wide half-volley; he swished and edged.
Woakes wisely shouldered arms to the next delivery and either side of lunch he and Buttler added 40 runs together. However, Buttler is still lacking conviction; eventually he advanced against Vernon Philander aiming for some distant boundary and the ball flew high in the air to cover point, where Elgar took the catch. This correspondent still has faith in Buttler, though it is possible he may now be in the minority.
Soon Woakes departed to a fine slip catch by Du Plessis when driving at Nortje, who achieved his first five-wicket haul in Test cricket, albeit for 110 runs. The advent of Stuart Broad is usually the sign for the groundsman to crank up the heavy roller but this was not required for another 8.2 overs (and the South Africans decided upon the light, hand-pulled roller anyway). In that time Broad and Wood pillaged 82 runs.
They struck the ball magnificently, with the renascent Broad clearing the boundary four times and Wood three, but once again Du Plessis’s tactics were strange. He found himself bowling his two novice Test bowlers in tandem against the tail and within a very short period of time they were operating with identical fields: one slip and eight men on the boundary.
This sent messages: the bowlers could hardly interpret such a field as a vote of confidence while the batsmen must have felt pretty good about themselves. It is possible to set a field that includes boundary fielders – and some catchers – which suggests that the fielding side expects a wicket at any moment against number 10 and 11. The runs generated by Broad and Wood were important. Their stand took England’s total into “formidable” territory and was backed up by bowling – and captaincy- far better designed to exploit the conditions here.