South Africa’s wait to win a Test series against England at home grew longer after a defeat in the third Test at Port Elizabeth. It has inexplicably been two decades since the Proteas last managed to beat England at home - a 2-1 victory in the 1999/00 season.
Despite their own troubles, this series was seen as a great chance for the Faf du Plessis-led squad to finally beat England at home and get back on track under the new management comprised of ex-cricketers of a glorious generation of Proteas’ cricket.
After a tumultuous 2019, their last result of the year - a 107-run victory in Centurion - gave them hopes of light at the end of the tunnel but the tables turned over the course of the next two Tests putting them in a position where the prospects of winning the series is now out of the window. The fact that it came against an England team which themselves had an unproductive 2019 in Test cricket inscribes further blows on their confidence.
England were one of the most unsettled units in Test cricket last year trying to fit their white-ball batting stars into their Test line-up. Tough calls were made, Dominic Sibley and Ollie Pope replaced Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow in the line-up and Dom Bess joined the team again, by virtue of an injury to Jack Leach. Each one of them responded. Sibley fought for over eight hours in Cape Town scoring an unbeaten 133 batting South Africa out of the game. In Port Elizabeth, Pope notched up his first Test hundred while Bess snapped up his maiden 5-wicket haul.
South Africa have lagged behind in that department. They have shown glimpses but none of them have carried on to achieve the desired results. Rassie van der Dussen and Pieter Malan have done enough to keep themselves in contention for the upcoming future but not to create an impact for the home side. Zubayr Hamza has struggled at three.
Amongst the seniors, Dean Elgar has not cashed in on the starts. He will rue his tame dismissal for 88 in the New Year’s Test at Cape Town, an innings which had the potential to dictate terms for the home team had he carried on for longer. du Plessis is going through a slump. Quinton de Kock has been the only consistent performer but a string of fifties at six has not been enough to compensate for the substandard top order.
Consequently, their batting numbers have been dipping as the series has progressed. They scored enough to win in Centurion, fought hard in Cape Town taking the game to the last hour of the contest but lacked resistance in Port Elizabeth where they lost 10 wickets in the match to the spin duo of Bess and Joe Root.
Not to take any credit away from the England spinners, but none of them pos the threat of running through batting line-ups like they did in Port Elizabeth.
"England showed us how to apply yourself, how to get yourself in and how to score big runs. That's the only difference between the two teams," said du Plessis admitting the incompetence of his side to bat long.
The fact that South Africa have not been able to solve this problem for almost two years - since AB de Villiers’ untimely retirement - makes it a bigger cause of worry. As a result, the Proteas have won only one Test series since de Villiers hung up his boots.
Coming back to this series, there are no hundreds for the South African batsmen while England have scored three. In fact, there has been only one 100-run stand for the home side in the series - when Elgar and van der Dussen added 117 for the fourth wicket in the last innings of the Cape Town Test. Their highest partnership in Port Elizabeth was a 99-run stand for the 10th wicket between Keshav Maharaj and Dane Paterson which only delayed the inevitable.
Coming to the bowling front, the home side have already received a huge setback with Kagiso Rabada’s suspension. On a historically seam-friendly Wanderers’ track, he will be missed even more. His absence will take away the experience of 43 Tests from a young South African bowling unit. The onus now shifts largely on Vernon Philander (63 Tests) who will be playing his last Test.
Given that Wanderers is Philander’s favorite Test venue in South Africa, he will be eyeing to bid adieu with one big performance, helping his country to a much needed Test win while leading the bowling attack.
England, on the other hand, will head into a Test match with a clear mind for the first time since November 2018, the last occasion they took the field in the final match of a Test series without lagging behind. Their coach, Chris Silverwood has signalled that the side now is playing according to the template - score big in first innings and then aim for 20 wickets. A batting powerhouse in Ben Stokes, the emergence of Sibley and Pope alongside captain Root who has chipped in with vital contributions at times back up Silverwood’s words. Jos Buttler and Zak Crawley are the only ones who need to prove a point with the bat.
While Jofra Archer is pushing for a place in the XI after bowling a fiery spell in the nets, Mark Wood is understood to have sore muscles again. Both are yet to prove their match fitness based on which England will take a call on the dynamics of their bowling unit for the final Test.
Prior to the series, skippers from both sides - Root and du Plessis - were under the pump. None of them have created a lasting impact with the bat but the contrasting emotions in the two camps lend Root a much comfortable position while du Plessis has been asked about his future with South African cricket and has already also lost the ODI captaincy to de Kock. However, du Plessis first task would be to win the toss, which he has lost six times in a row now.
South Africa: Pieter Malan, Dean Elgar, Zubayr Hamza/Temba Bavuma, Faf du Plessis (c), Rassie van der Dussen, Quinton de Kock (wk), Vernon Philander, Anrich Nortje, Keshav Maharaj, Dwaine Pretorius, Dane Paterson/Beuran Hendricks
England: Dominic Sibley, Zak Crawley, Joe Denly, Joe Root (c), Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler (wk), Sam Curran, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Mark Wood/Jofra Archer