Cape Town – The sheer collective stubbornness of South Africa’s Test team, a hallmark that masks lingering deficiencies in the batting department, continues to help keep their noses in front of New Zealand as the tense series approaches its climax.
The Black Caps registered the best opening partnership by either side thus far on Sunday’s again rain-affected day two of the third and final clash in Hamilton – an unbeaten one in their first knock, as left-handers Tom Latham and Jeet Raval caressed them to 67/0 at the close.
But there is also enough in the pitch and atmospheric conditions for the Proteas to be well aware that nipping out one can easily translate into nipping out a few pretty speedily, so there was no reason to feel any special consternation on Sunday night.
Certainly just 33 deliveries thus far from in-form left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj, the leading wicket-taker across the sides, have been enough to suggest he will be a mounting handful as the Test grinds on.
More importantly, though, the tourists had – not for the first time in recent Test matches – shown scrapping qualities amidst their lower order, which played a pivotal role in ensuring the comfort of their own first-innings total of 314.
The determined, yet also pleasingly aggressive tail, shepherded for the umpteenth time by that priceless No 7 component Quinton de Kock, frustrated the home attack after danger signs had flashed for the Proteas on at least two earlier occasions – at 148/5 and then 219/7.
Modern history powerfully indicates that a score above 300 by the team taking first strike in Tests at Seddon Park is a relative luxury: it had happened only once (by West Indies, 367 in December 2013) in six games ahead of this one.
So from situations where even 250 sometimes looked a best prospect for them, the psychological satisfaction of going considerably further keeps SA the team holding the aces, arguably, as they preserve that 1-0 series lead with three days of cricket left.
Also in the Proteas’ favour, under that particular circumstance, is the ongoing instability of the local weather – current forecasts suggest that Monday’s middle day will be plagued by rain anew, particularly in the period between lunch and early evening.
The onus, then, is on Kane Williamson and company to keep playing as positively as possible to ensure this match doesn’t end in stalemate – not the easiest of tasks on a surface that may slow more and more and aid spin and both brands of swing.
On Sunday, De Kock produced virtually a carbon copy of his innings in the Proteas’ first knock at Welllington a few days previously.
Whereas on that occasion he notched 91 off 118 balls, here it was just one run fewer off exactly the same tally of deliveries; 10 fours and three sixes at the Basin Reserve became 11 fours and two sixes at Seddon Park.
But there were other similarities to the SA rear-guard actions in the successive Test matches.
At Wellington, Morne Morkel equalled his Test best innings of 40, and in the present fixture it was the turn of pace-bowling colleague Kagiso Rabada to achieve his own personal milestone at the crease.
Playing with particular fearlessness and competence on the leg-side, the expressive Rabada walloped his way to 34, including 30 runs in boundaries, to beat his prior best mark of 32 against the same opponents at Kingsmead last year.
Rabada has enough strokes and self-belief to suggest that it is only a matter of time before he records a half-century in the Test landscape, and potentially even sneak up a notch or two in the long run from his berth at No 10.
His stand of 46 for the ninth wicket with the gloveman – remember, playing this Test with a well-publicised finger problem – became a source of annoyance and some angst to the New Zealanders as South Africa went well better than what has been perceived as par in these conditions.
It may just turn into one of those gritty little cameos that have characterised the Proteas’ play in New Zealand, and potentially pivotal in determining whether they lift the trophy for a fourth consecutive series triumph in the format …
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