It has been another absorbing day of Test cricket and once again it feels as though South Africa have just about had the better of it. It has been close enough, however, that they are still only on top by a bit. They might be a bit disappointed though as they did have a chance to take control of the match in a similar way as England did yesterday. It was not as good a chance and they did not miss it as utterly, but it was still there.
South Africa had that opening partly thanks to some generosity from England and in particular Matt Prior. After seeing off the eight overs to the new ball comfortably, Prior had a flash at the first delivery from the new ball which was well wide and edged it to slip. It was an absolutely terrible shot and was the sort that one expects to see Brad Haddin play. Jonny Bairstow also became the second England batsman to have been bowled through the gate by Morkel in gutting circumstances this Test as he fell short of his ton. But from 264-8 England still got a first innings lead as South Africa had the same sort of problem in dismissing the tail that hurt England. Graeme Swann played a very good, restrained, innings of 37 not out and was supported by double figure scores from both Anderson and Finn. Whilst a lead of six is not significant, it had looked like England would be facing a significant deficit and batted well to avoid that.
The most interesting part of the day was South Africa’s innings though. The pitch throughout the match has looked flat and for the first time South Africa would be batting with the sun out. They did make a fairly untroubled start, but England never really let them get away. I criticise Andrew Strauss’ field placings and bowling strategy a lot, but this is a time where it worked very well. England had to keep South Africa from getting away and let the odd good ball keep the pressure on and that is what they did. Strauss also made the excellent decision to bowl Swann as first change after it was clear that the seamers were not getting much out of the pitch. Swann bowled very well, especially after tea. He beat the bat of Smith more than once (and once so comprehensively that England for some reason decided to waste a review on it) and ultimately trapped him lbw. He also forced Amla to take an off stump guard to negate the possibility of an lbw. Although the bowlers never really looked on top of the batsmen they managed to winkle three batsmen out and kept it tight enough to keep England well in the match. The only real blot was Prior’s drop of Amla when the latter was on only two.
With two days left in the Test, there is very likely going to be a result. South Africa are on top at the moment with a lead of 139, but England have an opening and South Africa actually have a nightwatchman in after the late dismissal of Kallis. So far in this Test, neither attack has been able to instigate a collapse without some help either from the batsmen or from the umpire, so South Africa will basically need to keep batting sensibly. England aren’t letting them get away, but anything short of a proper collapse will probably be okay for South Africa if possibly not ideal. I don’t think England will want to chase too many on the last day and a bit; although it is a flat wicket, both sides barely got to 300 and there have been no centurions in the match. I think the pitch is a lot harder on which to bat than it looks and the way England bowled today suggests that there is the occasional bit of help in the pitch to keep the batsmen from getting very settled. It is also worth remembering that England were bowled out for 240 on a very flat pitch at the Oval. Whilst they don’t have Pietersen or Bopara to throw it away this time, it is still by no means certain that they will not succumb to pressure during the run chase. There have been a lot of suggestions that 300 is gettable for England and whilst it may be, I would not expect them to succeed. I think England will not be favourites in chasing anything over 275, which means the bowlers have a lot of work to do tomorrow.