1st Test, Day 3: England 303 & 172-3 lead South Africa 214 by 261 runs
England are firmly in the driving seat after three days at Kingsmead, a position secured in the evening sunshine by a partnership of 71 between Nick Compton (49) and Joe Root (60 not out) and another, unbroken, of 53 with James Taylor (24 not out), that – barring a complete meltdown with bat and ball and an innings of the kind played by Graeme Smith at Edgbaston in 2008 – really ought to have taken the match out of reach of the South Africans.
England will resume on 172 for three, a lead of 261, having bowled South Africa out in the morning for 214, Stuart Broad finishing with four for 25 and Moeen Ali four for 69.
Hashim Amla's team is in no small measure of disarray. Dale Steyn, the finest fast bowler of his generation, had looked off the pace on the second day and here he twice left the field mid-over with a shoulder condition.
That he actually returned to have a second, if futile, crack speaks volumes for his resolve but it seems unlikely that he will be fit for the second Test which starts in Cape Town on January 2nd.
But there are other issues too. The former captain AB de Villiers has found a strange time to let it be known he does not wish to play so much international cricket; while the captain, a high class batsman, cannot buy a run and had what amounted to three goes at scoring his first innings seven.
The mood will not have been helped by the three catches missed, all off Morne Morkel, two of them by De Villiers and one straightforward one to Dean Elgar at second slip, that reprieved Compton, twice, and Root, when six, although Compton, who had also had a caught behind decision against him overturned , was taken down the legside by De Villiers two balls after the keeper's second drop.
Nor will Amla have been best pleased by the umpires changing the ball after 26 overs on account of it being rather more worn that it ought to have been at that stage. Read into that what you will. By the last hour, an attack that not so long ago boasted Steyn, Morkel, Vernon Philander, and Jacques Kallis was reduced to the two opening batsmen, Elgar and Stiaan van Zyl purveying their respective left arm spin and medium pace as if it was a gentle club match rather than a tooth-and-claw Test.
Between lunch and tea though, it was hard to see whether it was England, lead notwithstanding, or a wounded South Africa who had the greater desire.
England’s was a good lead, particularly given that they had been put into bat on a damp grey first morning, but it was by no means secure: South Africa, depleted, came at them hard. There was nothing to take for granted here. This is a pitch that is offering increasing turn to spinners but which by its loose nature also lends bite to the seam when the ball is hard during the first 15 to 20 overs. Negotiate those overs and unless there is high quality spin, batting can become a little easier.
There was a second failure for Alastair Cook, though, and although Alex Hales negotiated the new ball, he was caught in the deep attempting to attack the off-spin of Dane Piedt, although slight mitigation in that the innings had become a little stagnant against urgent bowling. The tea interval arriving not long after his dismissal came at an opportune time, with the chance to regroup. The time out served them well. The final session was England's.
The last time England were in Durban, Cook made a century in England's innings win, but now it has been a struggle. In the first innings he made an 11-ball duck. This time he got off the mark by leg-glancing Steyn to the fine leg boundary, avoiding the pair that would have put him alongside Nasser Hussain and Ian Botham as the only England batsmen to have done so while captain, and appeared to have matters under control against the pace of Morkel, Steyn and Kyle Abbott, only to misjudge the line from the Piedt, round the wicket, and be given out lbw. Hales was proved correct in not advising a review. Cook's centuries in Asia and UAE show his capacity to play spin and to play so much down the wrong line was out of character.
Hales looked secure enough, saw off the initial shine, and had started to expand his game against the spinner, sweeping him cleanly for six and to the fine leg boundary, so there was a sense of urgency there, particularly with Compton now in and intent on continuing his own game in the same manner that a predecessor Jonathan Trott might have done.
His dismissal was not so much ill-judged as ill-executed. South Africa might have snared Root early on when his mishook at Morkel was palmed away by De Villiers, and it was the last opportunity he was to give. After the interval, the thin bowling resources began to take their toll and the pair were able to tick along until Compton feathered one from Morkel down the leg side.
In the morning, the England bowling was immaculate once more, led by Broad who removed Temba Bavuma with the second ball of the day, and Moeen who added the wickets of JP Duminy, Abbott and, with the second new ball due, Steyn after a 54-run eighth-wicket stand with Elgar. If England go on to win, he will have played an important part, with how the South African batsmen, particularly De Villiers, chose to attack him.
Steve Finn, with the second new ball, finished things off in a single over. Through all this, Elgar, 67 not out overnight, had played with commendable skill and concentration, taking no risks, outstanding batting on such a pitch, reaching his third Test century from 211 balls with eight fours and a six.
By the time Morkel was taken at second slip to end the innings, he had batted for almost six and a half hours with not a semblance of a chance save a possible lbw that England unadvisedly chose not to review the previous evening. His unbeaten 118 makes him the sixth South African batsman to carry his bat in a Test, and the first since Gary Kirsten did so against Pakistan in Faisalabad in 1997.