The early stages of the fourth Test at the Wanderers are panning out very similarly to the third at Port Elizabeth.
The pitch was slower at St George’s Park, but at the end of the first day, England were four down and in a position that was strong but not impregnable. By stumps on day two, they had assumed total control.
The same has been true in Johannesburg. England did fine on the first day, and had the upper hand. But on the second day – when the crowds came out in force, the Bullring was rocking and the Barmy Army drowned out – they put their foot on the throat.
Again, they surged to 400 – exactly 400 – and took vital wickets. South Africa are six down, and 312 behind. The forecast for the rest of the game is improving.
Once again Mark Wood – Durham’s greatest all-rounder? – has been at the heart of it.
The road to a big first-innings score was slightly less straightforward this time. There were two hefty hundreds in PE, but this was a proper team effort. Only Ben Stokes (2) and Sam Curran (a golden duck) failed to reach 20.
Zak Crawley’s 66 was the lowest high score in Test for an innings of 400. Most fun of all was numbers nine, 10 and 11 contributed 110 between them – including a rollicking last-wicket stand of 82 from 50 balls between Wood and Stuart Broad, 40 minutes in which the series fully slipped from South Africa’s grasp.
It was a strange morning session, which began with a 45-minute delay for rain. For an hour, Joe Root and Ollie Pope – particularly Pope, in fact – looked in absolute control, scoring 66 in under 15 overs and both passing 50.
Then Anrich Nortje’s terrific spell after drinks saw England lose three for 11 to put the skids on their march. After England steadied the ship and reached lunch on 300 for seven, it was still their session.
Much of that was down to Pope, whose late cut fizzed on his way to a third half-century in as many Tests, leaving Root as second fiddle, a role he was perfectly happy with. Just as things felt like they could get ugly, Nortje stepped in.
First ball after drinks, Pope played on trying to leave then Root – who was dropped on 53 by Faf du Plessis at slip – drove too hard and was caught behind. Sam Curran did exactly the same thing next ball.
It was left to Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes, who survived a hat-trick ball from Nortje, to rebuild. Both fell soon after lunch, with the under-pressure Buttler skewing his first shot in anger and Woakes falling to Nortje.
That completed a maiden five-wicket haul that Nortje has deserved all series. By the end of the day he was in as nightwatchman again. He deserves better.
So England were 318 for nine, and that felt slightly above par. There was fun to be had for Wood and Broad yet, though. With the field up, they pulled and swiped seven sixes but, when Du Plessis foolishly put eight fielders on the fence, they just milked singles.
Who knows which was more demoralising for the fielding side. Eventually Broad picked out one of those fielders in the deep, and the misery was over.
England took the field riding the crest of a wave. After 15 overs (the first 12 before tea), South Africa were 13 without loss, and had not scored a boundary. Three followed in short order, but all were off edges and the third, of Dean Elgar on eight, could perhaps have been caught by Buttler.
With England terrifically disciplined, it was only a matter of time before a breakthrough came. And when one came, it was soon three for 14 in five overs. At 94.4mph, Wood was simply too quick for Pieter Malan, who edged behind.
Rassie van der Dussen, promoted to no3, was surprised by a Curran lifter and was caught sharply at second slip by Stokes.
Finally, and utterly inexplicably, Elgar just punched Stokes to backward point. Elgar is a rare senior figure in this batting lineup, but has had a torrid series.
Du Plessis and Quinton de Kock are the other senior players in the batting order. Du Plessis, having had a dire morning as captain, tried to be sensible and dig in. But Woakes, possibly the most deserving of all England’s bowlers, pinned him lbw and a review would not save him.
De Kock took a more positive approach, and he picked off five boundaries by stumps. With Wood returning to dismiss Temba Bavuma and Nortje, he is South Africa’s last hope of survival.
England seem unlikely to enforce the follow-on, as they did in Port Elizabeth, but seem likely to have the choice.