MARTIN SAMUEL: South Africa are weakened and totally demoralised… the last three Tests against England have become a painful mismatch
- South African cricket will have plenty to think about over the coming months
- England are expected to with the third Test and the series at a canter
- The introduction of Kolpac contracts has starved South Africa of their best men
- Faf du Plessis lacks energy in the field and South Africa must find a new captain
At 3.49pm local time, Ben Stokes clobbered an off-side ball from Dwaine Pretorius through midwicket for four, and with almost seven full sessions of the Test remaining, South Africa were staring at a record fourth innings run chase just to level the series.
And this at the Wanderers, too. The Bullring, as it is known around here. South African cricket’s famously furious, quick and hostile home.
The greatest Test run chase here was the 310 for eight, scored by Australia to defeat their hosts in 2011. At the point of Stokes’s boundary, England were already 314 ahead, and counting. They weren’t even playing particularly well in their second innings. They didn’t need to. South Africa have long looked a beaten team.
South Africa’s players looked demoralised on day three of the fourth Test against England
Maybe they will surprise everybody. Maybe they will somehow fashion a great and historic victory from these final two days. Almost certainly not, though. If they zipped through England yesterday, that was more to do with the attitude of the tourists, a team who are no doubt already imagining the taste of the celebratory beers in the dressing room when the job is done.
There has been a gulf in class between these teams across the last three Tests, and South Africa’s initial victory on this tour is looking more the work of a virus than the vanguard. Since health returned to the England camp, it has been all one way.
Even on Sunday, when England slumped to a disappointing 206 for eight, there was no optimism. England hadn’t even tried to get a shift on, just batted in a steady style and lost wickets that same careless way, too.
Jos Buttler has been the only Englishman to suffer during an all too comfortable series
Ben Stokes threatened to open up but didn’t get far enough. So did Sam Curran. Joe Root steered his side through so there was never a hint of panic, and the only real casualty from this is likely to be Jos Buttler, whose underwhelming eight might be his last innings in Test cricket.
England didn’t have to be brilliant, merely half-competent, to establish a winning position and Root protecting Stuart Broad from the strike and Beuran Hendricks during their final-wicket partnership seemed unnecessary, particularly as the captain fell three balls into that over anyway.
South Africa will resume tomorrow needing 466 — a score they have failed to get in any innings in this series — to win. Even if they matched their best knock so far — in the first innings of the first Test — they would still be 182 runs short of what is required. ‘These are dark times,’ said Mark Boucher, the South Africa coach.
What hurts, no doubt, is that their record against England since being readmitted to the Test game has been perfectly balanced. The same number of series wins as losses, and an equal number of draws: four, four and four. This series is set to be the parting of the ways then.
South Africa coach Mark Boucher admitted on Sunday that ‘these are dark times’
South African cricket is in ruins financially, with projected debts of over £36million, and they have lost half a team to Kolpak contracts in English cricket. To sign as a Kolpak player — and earn the advantageous status of a non-overseas cricketer — a South African must renounce international cricket. If he plays for South Africa, he is from overseas and subject to quota regulations.
If he signs on Kolpak terms — an agreement that allows citizens of roughly 100 countries to play in any EU nation without being considered as an overseas player — he cannot continue representing his country.
So there is half a South African team, better than this one, earning money in English cricket rather than rubbing against it on tour. The two leading wicket-takers in the County Championship last season were South Africans on Kolpak terms. Simon Harmer, an off-spinner who took 83 wickets for Essex, and Kyle Abbott, who took 71 bowling right- arm fast-medium for Hampshire, would certainly have made this team.
To add insult to injury, Harmer is now talking of making himself available for England when residency rules allow. He has played five Tests for South Africa.
Simon Harmer is one of many South Africans who are playing in England on Kolpak contracts
In all, four of the 13 top County Championship wicket-takers last year were Kolpak South Africans, Morne Morkel and Duanne Olivier the others.
So this is a weakened team and, increasingly, a demoralised one, too. Faf du Plessis is reaching journey’s end as captain and it shows sometimes, as sessions drift and energy leaks. A mismatch in cricket — and this has looked like one across the last two Tests — is brutal because it lasts so long.
A football match is over in 90 minutes; a bout in boxing can be lost in seconds. Yet surrender in Tests takes days to achieve.
Even if England wrap up this match 24 hours early, it will have taken four days to confirm what we already know; what even South Africa know. It is why some Ashes series in Australia become so painful. Coming out of the second Test in Adelaide, England now know they are ill-matched, and two down. Yet they still have to limp towards the inevitable in Perth. It has felt a little like that here; the difference being this is South Africa’s soil and, in the Wanderers, their HQ, their fortress.
Faf du Plessis is reaching journey’s end as captain and he has allowed sessions to drift
And a series mismatch is different from a game. Liverpool put four past Norwich on the first day of the season. Now they won’t meet again until February 15. Yet imagine if Norwich had to play Liverpool again the next week, and then again the week after. The same players that they knew had the beating of them. And not for 90 minutes, but for five days straight, and then another five days, and then another.
That is what it is like to lose at Test cricket, once supremacy has been established. It is like an entire league season in which you only play Liverpool. Occasionally there might be a draw — the equivalent of a won session, like on the first day here when South Africa dismissed Stokes for two and England were 157 for four — but these moments are fleeting.
Since then it has been a slow, uphill treadmill to oblivion for South Africa’s cricketers, with little end in sight, considering this series was preceded by four straight Tests defeats, including a series lost at home to Sri Lanka, the first Asian nation to win here.
The inquest when the final Test ends — and England will be confident that will happen today — will be long and painful.
Solutions, however, are slim on the ground. This was a very ordinary day for England, but it still left them set fair for a thumping victory. If all they do today is their job, it is over.
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