Cape Town – All results possible … though probably with gloomy, frigid weather the true kingmaker.
That was the situation after Saturday’s curtailed fourth day’s play in the first Test between New Zealand and South Africa at Dunedin’s University Oval.
Forecasts suggest pretty strongly that even if rain stays mostly away during Sunday’s climax to an intriguing battle – which it may not -- the amount of cloud-cover will mean regular flirtation with the light-meter regardless of the session.
Temperatures are not tipped to crawl much beyond the low teens at any stage of the day, only adding to the general sense that the elements will dictate a stalemate.
But if enough cricket is able to be played on an extended-overs Sunday, the personality most likely to determine the fate of the fixture certainly shapes up tantalisingly as the Proteas’ appropriately ice-cool captain Faf du Plessis.
The resolute, famously durable right-hander was at the crease at stumps on Saturday with an unbeaten 56 off 155 balls, his side 224 for six in their second knock for a lead of 191.
The extent of his ongoing prosperity on day five could well determine, simultaneously, just how confident he feels as skipper about setting the Black Caps – assuming declaration becomes a possibility – the carrot of a tempting target.
If Du Plessis, who still has the gritty Vernon Philander as partner just ahead of the tail-proper, succumbs swiftly, the odds on a home victory will improve immensely.
That said, even a requirement to win of around 200 seems anything but a fait accompli for New Zealand, as the pitch is a difficult one for stroke-play, giving attractive hope to both spinners and seamers alike, and run rates have been unspectacular more or less from the Test’s outset.
Even if the Proteas’ last four wickets tumble in a hurry during the first session on Sunday, Du Plessis will be entitled to feel almost as optimistic as his opposite number Kane Williamson about forcing a favourable outcome – remember that the New Zealanders have a hobbling frontline batsman in Ross Taylor.
Just given his form, plus his track record in crease obstinacy and relish in slightly backs-to-the-wall situations, there is at least a reasonable chance that Du Plessis will forge on meaningfully enough in this innings to put himself in a position – no doubt looking skyward often as well -- to decide when he feels ready to put the Black Caps back in to bat.
Du Plessis has notched half-centuries in each of his last four international knocks, including successive ones in this very Test, plus a further two in the ODIs at Hamilton and Auckland a few days earlier.
The other major feature of the patience-testing, slow-boiling South African second dig thus far (runs per over an unusual 2.19) has been another beefy score from Dean Elgar, who followed up his precious 140 first time out with 89.
The left-handed opener faced an admirable total of 548 deliveries in the course of what can confidently be branded his most productive Test match in 33 so far.
His last handful of Tests, marked by notable consistency, confirm him very much as part of the furniture these days, which is reassuring considering the current concerns around partner Stephen Cook (43 runs from five innings).
Still, South Africa were reasonably indebted, in managing to end day four without too profoundly deep-rooted angst, to some sloppy home fielding … as well as their use of the review system which home commentator Simon Doull described as “absolutely awful”.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing