Eleven men started the day with a Galibier-sized mountain before them – two full days of batting against a varied attack on a wearing pitch. As the cliché has it, that’s why they call it Test cricket.
For three men, the task was even greater: Keaton Jennings, Gary Ballance and Liam Dawson were not playing for their places because that’s not how England work these days, but they were under immense pressure from fans and media to justify the Three Lions they wore.
At 11am, Jennings walked to the crease and into the firing line. A pull got him off the dreaded pair and an uppish punch garnered another two runs, but the hands were out in front of the body, the anxiety to feel bat on ball evident. Faf du Plessis moved his short leg into short extra cover, probably just to show that he had spotted that nervous push too. Du Plessis has been anything but naïve in his captaincy in this Test.
Vernon Philander’s fourth ball moved the dreaded half-bat’s width to kiss the edge of Jennings’s bat, but his soft hands saved him as the ball dropped short of the eager slip cordon. Big Vern’s next ball pitched in roughly the same place, the seam wobbling down, sending the ball through too large a gap between Jennings’s pads and bat, the Durham man instinctively playing the previous ball that had gone the other way. The death rattle was the inevitable result, Jennings sorted out good and proper by a master bowler who has worked over better batsmen than him.
That brought the second of the residents of England’s Death Row to the middle, Yorkshire’s No. 5 and England’s No. 3, Ballance taking guard in the heat of the day and the heat of the battle. The crowd felt the same frisson as the Romans must have when a gladiator took to the sand to face rampant beasts – it was somewhat voyeuristic, yes, but what a spectacle.
It didn’t last long. Bad luck loves a man in trouble and Ballance can count himself unfortunate to be given out on review, lbw to the brilliant Philander. Luck did play its part for all the whirring of the computer that collates the camera images and presents a visual representation for the screen.
Since cricket’s laws were first formulated, left-handers have relied on the pad to play right-arm over bowlers, knowing that length balls usually have to swing or seam in a bit to win an lbw decision. Umpire Simon Fry thought the same, but du Plessis’s bold review (he had already burned his first a few minutes earlier) was rewarded with the tracker showing just enough of the ball pitching in line with the leg stump. Once that light went red, two more were inevitable and Philander (and perhaps Lady Luck) had another victim.
The relevant law states: “If a ‘not out’ decision is being reviewed, in order to report that the point of impact is between wicket and wicket (i.e. in line with the stumps), the evidence provided by technology should show that the centre of the ball at the moment of interception is between wicket and wicket.”
It must have been tight, but Ballance is in the crosshairs of fate’s rifle and off he went.
As a combination of superb bowling and (later) brainless batting propelled England down the rabbit hole of defeat in double-quick time. Dawson arrived at the crease with the score on 122 for 6 after Moeen Ali, batting like a millionaire, gave it away as negligently as Jonny Bairstow had a little earlier. There was little to play for by then – except pride, but, in a shellacking of this order, pride mattered.
But the allrounder was left high and dry, five not out as Stuart Broad, Mark Wood and James Anderson batted as if playing for an Under-12s team on a sports day. Not much Dawson could do about that except feel terribly let down, as did thousands of England fans in an excellent fourth-day crowd.
The margin of defeat (340 runs) did not flatter South Africa, who benefited from their returning captain’s boldness in opting to bat first in bowler-friendly conditions, from his leadership in rotating his wonderful attack and his batting that (with his senior pro, Hashim Amla) showed that a high price would be put on South African wickets. In contrast, for England, only Joe Root and Bairstow scored more than 50 runs across both innings and only two partnerships realised more than 38 runs – at international level, that’s not good enough.
After so abject a display, albeit in the face of some high-quality cricket from South Africa, England will surely make changes for The Oval. How many of the three players featured above (and the out of form Wood) will make the selection remains to be seen, but I’d be surprised to see Jennings and Ballance dropped and equally surprised to see Dawson and Wood retained. For South Africa, Kagiso Rabada will return for Duanne Olivier, whose hat-trick delivery will have to wait for quite a while, I think.