England require another 330 runs with 8 wickets in hand
When England reached number one in the world last summer we were bombarded with cliched soundbites from all corners about how the real challenge wasn’t getting to the top but staying there. It is a challenge they have spectacularly failed. From the UAE to Sri Lanka, from Tino Best to Hashim Amla, they have failed across the board. Barring a miracle, tomorrow will be the final act of shambolic six months of cricket in which the star of every member of the side has fallen and a settled, contended side has become a chaotic, broken one. Sunday was a microcosm of all the problems that have plagued them since their ascent to the top; dropped catches, a strange lack of purpose in the field, struggling to finish the opposition off and then muddled minds prompting terrible shot selection when their turn came.
In every series since the dawn of time there has been one batsman who has filled his boots against England’s attack incessantly throughout. This summer they desperately tried to throw us off the scent by letting everyone fill their boots, but we’re an observant lot and we still noticed the one who stood out from the crowd. South Africa could have struggled had they lost early wickets this morning but, appropriately, Hashim Amla rose to the occasion and guided his side towards a score surely beyond England’s reach. He is the sort of batsman who seems to score runs without anyone noticing, until suddenly he’s 90* and the game is slipping away. On Sunday he went serenely past 100 before being undone by an absolute jaffer from Steve Finn, England’s stand-out performer, as he embarked on a spell of the highest quality which claimed three wickets in the space of six overs. Often Finn is erratic and he is by no means the finished article at Test level, but that spell was more like what everyone is expecting of him nowadays. Too many more where that came from and his place in the side will be beyond question.
Once again England allowed Vernon Philander the batsman to shut the window of opportunity firmly down on their fingers as they tried to clamber back inside, but it was Philander the bowler who has probably dealt the most fatal blow of all. Tricky evening sessions have brought little but calamity for the hosts all summer and so it proved again; Alastair Cook’s new policy of wandering across his stumps at the first available opportunity is proving about as successful as expected, while Andrew Strauss’ dismissal soon after was a wicket which spoke a thousand words.
It is not the first time shouldering arms has spelled disaster for the England captain and it may not be the last, but it was by far the most profound. He has had a tough Test, following on from a tough week which, in turn, followed on from a tough year. It showed. With a head so scrambled we could have put it on our plates and called it breakfast he chose to leave a ball which would have clattered middle stump out of the ground. A fitting finale to a series he would rather forget. What is it about England captains and Graeme Smith?
It is not a question of if, but when. England have little choice but to be positive and, even if they wanted to, it’s difficult to see an attempt to bat out the day bringing any success at all. Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell stood firm to the close on day four but they simply haven’t given themselves a chance. If Trott can squeeze out another 58 runs he will successfully take England’s top three combined past Philander’s total runs in the match so far, an impressive feat and the only realistic achievement the home side can hope for on the final day. The series promised so much and delivered so little. South Africa are clear and deserved winners and are about to put England firmly back in their box.