Cape Town – Thirty further runs … those are all South Africa need to ensure that Australia will have to pull off a new world record for a successful target chase in Test cricket.
The Proteas clinically wore down the Baggy Greens on a hot third day at the WACA on Saturday to significantly tighten their grip on the first Test.
By reaching 390 with four second-innings wickets in hand at the close, Faf du Plessis’s team, now 388 ahead, seem set to make the Aussies hunt down a bigger total than the current, premier global landmark for victory in a Test.
That is still the honour of West Indies, who notched 418 for seven to beat Australia by three wickets – though it was a consolation, dead-rubber win – at Antigua in 2003.
The next best is South Africa’s 414 for four at the very WACA in the immortal 2008/09 bilateral series, so there is a precedent – some comfort for the embattled host nation – for a major chase-down of a formidable score at this venue.
That said, there has also only ever been one other successful chase even above the 300-mark in Perth, which tells you how much the Australians have to do even if they were to knock over the remaining Proteas wickets in a flash on Sunday.
The intriguing, potential spanner in the works, of course, is that the visitors will be without their injured pace spearhead Dale Steyn, so down to three specialist bowlers when they finally take to the field again.
Record books over the past decade or so in Tests also show up the surprising fact that spinners – the Proteas will inevitably have to place a reasonably strong workload reliance on debutant Keshav Maharaj and part-timers JP Duminy and Dean Elgar – actually dwindle in effectiveness statistically in the third and fourth innings at the WACA.
As if to bear that out, the last five-wicket haul by a spinner there came when England’s Monty Panesar claimed 5/92 in the first knock of an Ashes Test in December 2006; the Aussies had won the toss and immediately chosen to bat.
Still, the two remaining fit South African seamers, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada, showed decent form in the Baggy Greens’ first innings of the current clash, and there were healthy signs – if you are Proteas-inclined – of the pitch starting to noticeably misbehave in the lengthening shadows of Saturday after its beating from the merciless sun. Cracks are widening.
South Africa have already worked themselves into a position where they seem at least 80 percent favourites to win from here, and on day three that rosy status was overwhelmingly down to the third-wicket alliance of exactly 250 runs – they were together for more than 74 overs in total – between left-handers and dual century-makers Duminy and Elgar.
Both would have pleased five-day purists for the respective ways in which they went about their business, balancing due caution and patience at times with rasping strokes for boundaries when suitable opportunities presented themselves.
The often rightly criticised Duminy, who has had a stubborn tendency to under-deliver against most nations in Tests, is developing a handy little line in saving his best for the big southern hemisphere foes – he now sports three of his five Test tons against Australia and an average of almost 51 against them, versus his 34.22 overall.
“With all that skill he’s got, it’s very hard to believe Duminy only has five Test centuries,” said veteran, hard-to-please Aussie pundit and former batsman Ian Chappell in television commentary.
“It’s so good to see … JP’s game has really turned on its head,” added Kevin Pietersen.
In the case of Elgar, it was a symbol of his tenacity that he could reach three figures at the WACA, four years on from an unfortunate “pair” on Test debut at the same ground.
He faced 16 balls in that unfortunate maiden experience; here he has seen off 338 (316 in the stamina-examining second innings) and it is the sort of endurance that could well prove pivotal in the outcome of this encounter …
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