There were, as you might expect, a few twists and turns along the way, but in the end, the result was thoroughly comprehensive. South Africa won the first Test at Centurion – their first non-defeat in six attempts – by 107 runs, thanks to a sustained new-ball assault that delivered England’s last six wickets in 11.5 overs at a cost of 46 runs. The star of the show on this fourth and final day, however, was not the first-innings hero, Vernon Philander, nor the kingpin of their attack, Kagiso Rabada, crucial though he was in crashing through England’s resistance with four wickets in his final seven overs.
Rather it was the snorting, bull-necked pace of the rookie quick Anrich Nortje, the man whose 40 runs as a nightwatchman on Saturday morning had been so crucial in setting up an imposing target of 376, and whose three second-innings wickets included two of the most prized scalps of the lot – England’s overnight obstacle, Rory Burns, for 84, and then the captain, Joe Root, whose fluent 48 had been looking like his side’s best hope.
The day’s other big wicket, however, was perhaps the most crucial of the lot, not because of how he had been proceeding, but because of what his enduring presence stood for. After achieving the impossible with that innings at Headingley, Ben Stokes stands as living proof that no cause is entirely lost, and when he came to the crease at the fall of Joe Denly, just as he had done in that very knock, England’s requirement was 218 further runs with seven wickets standing … just as it had been in August.
The similarities continued as he bedded into his stay, with caution to the fore as he ground his way to 4 runs from his first 42 balls (compared to 3 from 74 at Headingley) before the re-introduction of Keshav Maharaj singled a critical change of intent. A first-ball slog-sweep for four was followed by an inside-out smack down the ground, as England attempted to expel the spinner from South Africa’s attack. But two overs later, Maharaj had the final say in the duel – inducing an inside-edge on to the woodwork as he found some grip from the rough outside Stokes’ off stump.
The euphoria of South Africa’s celebrations betrayed the magnitude of the moment. Stokes’ departure for 14, with the second new ball only seven overs away, was the incision that England could not afford, given the fallibility of the men lurking down the order.
And few, alas, proved more fallible that the wretchedly out-of-form Jonny Bairstow. He had been recalled to the team when Ollie Pope succumbed to England’s lurgy on the eve of the Test, despite having played no first-class cricket since being dropped for the tour of New Zealand. And that was no sort of preparation for a player of Rabada’s intent. A flick off the pads from his first new-ball delivery proved a false dawn. One ball later, Rabada served up a juicy outswinger that was slapped with flat feet and an open face straight to gully.
At 222 for 5, with another 154 still needed, the writing was suddenly on the wall, even if Jos Buttler – who missed the third day through illness – showed admirable stoicism as he dug in alongside his skipper. But, while Rabada was a constant menace, his new-ball colleague Philander was slightly off the boil at the other end, finding less of his habitual swing and proving a relative sinecure as that precious new-ball shine began to be eroded from the Kookaburra.
And so Faf du Plessis, to his credit, chose to spell Philander after just three ineffectual overs, and back came Nortje with licence to let rip. Sure enough, his second ball bagged the big one. Root, whose only moment of discomfort in the course of a serene stay had come when Nortje had rapped him on the wrist with a lifter in the morning session, was once again taken aback by extra pace outside off, and flinched a second-ball edge through to Quinton de Kock to fall for a valiant but insubstantial 48.
The remainder of England’s innings turned into a predictable bar-brawl of big hits and regular wickets, as the tail chose to roll the dice en masse, and try to smoke their way to within touching distance of their target rather than bed in for the inevitable. Buttler and Sam Curran took Nortje’s next over for 15, including a wild pull from Buttler that sailed onto the grass banks, but prolonged resistance was futile.
Rabada found Curran’s outside edge to give de Kock his eighth catch of the match, before Jofra Archer snicked Nortje to slip. Buttler then decided to go for broke, crashing Rabada over cow corner for his second six of the innings but holed out in the same direction one ball later, and Stuart Broad’s timbers couldn’t survive the rest of the over.
South Africa’s celebrations were heartfelt and long overdue – they’ve endured as wretched a year as England’s has been intermittently glorious (in one format at least), but this was a vindication for a new regime that was appointed in the throes of crisis at the beginning of the month, and has already dredged an admirable team spirit in the face of adversity.
That’s not to say it was an easy denouement. There were nerves aplenty along the way, as England resumed on their overnight 121 for 1, with Burns entrenched on a steadfast 77 and their collective eyes as firmly on the prize as they can be when such a distant target of 376 is glinting on the horizon.
But just as England’s morning session on the Saturday had been so crucial in their eventual demise, so South Africa’s victory was built on the discipline that they showed in conceding just 50 runs in 25 overs before lunch, while chipping out two hugely significant wickets.
And Nortje, once again, was instrumental in the session’s biggest moment. Burns, whose authority at the top of England’s order has been enhanced significantly in this contest, was 16 runs shy of his third Test century and playing with control and composure, when he gambled on aggression as the change bowlers entered the fray.—Agencies