Cape Town – Just how badly do South Africa, perhaps increasingly travel-weary, wish to salvage a share of the Test series in England?
After all, any hopes of taking home the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy in their luggage have now frittered away, with the current holders and home outfit in an unassailable position – 2-1 to the good with only Old Trafford to come, from Friday, after their hardly unexpected wrapping up of the third contest at The Oval by 239 runs on Monday.
Yet a shared series on English turf would still amount to a commendable enough development for the Proteas, and if they do manage to level things in Manchester it would also be a statement confirming good mental strength and determination even as certain cracks in their structural and technical arsenal at five-day level seemingly widen.
It cannot be easy, as the touring side, to have to save much of your best for last just to earn a drawn series, especially bearing in mind that the various cross-format players in their Test squad have been in England since early May and may now be vulnerable in some cases to the “one foot on the plane” syndrome.
But managing to haul back a 2-2 outcome would nevertheless be cause for some satisfaction and restored pride, considering the more widespread failure the Proteas have experienced in the UK thus far: 2-1 reverses in each of the bilateral ODI and Twenty20 series, as well as that indigestible showing in the multinational ICC Champions Trophy.
If they do end up losing the series, they would become only the second SA side of the post-isolation era to do so in England – the home team won 2-1 in 1998, but two others (1994 and 2003) were split and the Proteas, under Graeme Smith each time, triumphed in each of the last two on those shores (2008 and 2012).
Surrendering this series would also mean that South Africa have lost two in a row to these foes for the first time since 1964/65, when they were pipped 1-0 at home under Trevor Goddard’s leadership -- there were as many as four stalemates in the long series – after also coming a 3-0 cropper in England in the earlier 1960 combat.
So there is enough at stake for Faf du Plessis’s still No 2-ranked Proteas (only behind India) to have a strong interest in victory at Old Trafford against an English team lying fourth on the ICC ladder as things stand.
Another factor in their favour is the strangely schizophrenic nature of the present series, marked by constantly swaying fortunes in the result column, and with the team winning one encounter tumbling like a pack of cards in the next: is it simply England’s turn once more in the next few days to lose their mojo violently again?
England won at Lord’s by 211 runs, South Africa at Trent Bridge by 340 runs, and now England again by 239 runs at The Oval.
Former national selector Shafiek Abrahams noted in the SuperSport studio during Monday’s post-mortem: “These teams are closer than the margins in each Test so far suggest; we’ve (the Proteas) simply got to remember that.
“Just by getting the skills levels back up (after the shortcomings at The Oval), we will compete with England once more.”
Still, the Proteas have just three days between Tests to do a bit of soul-searching and iron out weaknesses, which became all too apparent in both batting and bowling terms, and some intense training sessions seem on the cards for the Old Trafford finale.
It is a venue where South Africa have only won one prior Test, by three wickets back in 1955 under the captaincy of Jackie McGlew, although they only failed by a whisker to topple England on last visit there in the 1998 series, where the home team followed on and were nine wickets down in their second innings to steal a draw.
England are also unbeaten in their last 10 Tests at Old Trafford, having won eight and drawn two of them.
Although some onlookers will see things differently, the Proteas’ brains trust may well resist the temptation to make significant – or even any – changes to the SA team.
Ten of the XI who lost at The Oval (back-from-suspension Kagiso Rabada the lone exception) had also featured in the inspiring Nottingham triumph, so the argument might well be that instead of jerking knees too hastily, the side who tasted defeat in London should have a collective stab at atonement.
Indeed, bizarre though it might first sound, the player most under threat for Old Trafford might even be Dean Elgar … yes, Dean Elgar.
South Africa’s admirably gutsy second-innings hero, who got well over half of the entire team’s total of 252 with his 136, was clearly in great, wince-causing discomfort at times from a finger injury.
He has reportedly indicated his major desire not to be sidelined for the series decider, and that is a comforting sentiment from amidst an otherwise fragile batting line-up, but at the same time, just how much better – if at all – might his injury actually be by later this week?
Will it be deemed medically wise to field him?
Some consideration, even if relatively fleeting, is likely to be given to blooding 22-year-old Aiden Markram at the expense of Elgar’s opening partner Heino Kuhn, but I’d wager that the youngster might yet have a slightly better chance of the nod for enforced reasons … albeit that “no Elgar” seems a slightly hellish scenario as things stand.
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