Steven Finn made the vital incisions for England as they remained on course for victory in the opening Test at Kingsmead. He claimed three wickets, continuing Hashim Amla’s horror run of form and then snaffling Faf du Plessis in the dying moments of the day, to leave South Africa 136 for 4 after they had been set 416 or 140 overs to survive.
South Africa’s slim hopes were left with AB de Villiers, who was unbeaten on 37 at the close. However, England could have been further advanced towards a win in the opening Test of an away series for just the second time since 2004 had they taken a chance offered by him on 33. Facing Moeen Ali, de Villiers came down the pitch and was beaten by sharp turn and bounce from round the wicket, but Jonny Bairstow could not gather the stumping chance. Until then it had been a positive day for Bairstow, who struck 79 off 76 balls to swell England’s lead but, while acknowledging it was a tough chance, his latest error will do nothing to quieten the debate about the wicketkeeping position.
It appeared de Villiers and du Plessis, who had revived memories of the second innings in Delhi with his dead-batted defence, would take South Africa to the end of the day in a position from where they would have had visions of a draw. Then, in what became the final over, Finn produced a terrific lifting delivery around off stump which forced du Plessis to play and Alastair Cook held on at first slip.
Whether South Africa bring out another blockathon only time will tell, but they began the innings with a positive intent as the fifty came up in the 10th over. But Ben Stokes, who initially appeared to be struggling with a foot problem, provided the first breakthrough and Finn produced a telling four-over spell which brought 2 for 12, removing Amla and the in-form Dean Elgar, as conditions turned gloomy and the floodlights came on.
Stiaan Van Zyl, who nipped in with 3 for 20 to finish off England’s innings for an injury-hit South Africa attack, quickly avoided a pair and although he offered a sharp, low chance to short leg on 6 played some fine strokes in the period leading into tea as he took on the pace bowlers. However, after six meaty boundaries he failed to cover the line of a Stokes delivery from round the wicket which squeezed between bat and pad. With Stephen Cook making a big hundred in the current round of Sunfoil matches he could face a nervous wait to see if he holds on to his place.
His opening partner, Elgar, is far more secure and until he edged a full delivery from Finn to second slip – where Joe Root did well to react to the catch, which came from an unusual angle with the batsman jabbing at the ball – he had spent every moment of the match on the field.
That wicket came eight balls after Finn had claimed Amla, who had actually looked much more assertive at the start of this innings. He was off the mark with a back-foot drive and then crunched Stuart Broad over midwicket, but facing Finn he played an indeterminate cut which sent a thick edge through to Bairstow.
The first period of the day had gone as expected once South Africa did not extract a cluster of early wickets. Dane Piedt bagged his maiden Test five-wicket, shouldering a heavy burden alongside Morne Morkel and Kyle Abbott in the absence of the injured Dale Steyn. However, Amla opted not to take the new ball and seemed content for England’s innings to take its natural course rather than force the pace.
Bairstow ensured England kept up a good tempo, playing as positively as anyone has managed on this surface, timing the ball sweetly from the off in what was one of his most convincing Test innings. There was one sharp chance to leg side on 34, which van Zyl could not gather, but overall it was a commanding innings. His run-a-ball fifty came straight after the break and when he was left with just Finn for company he opened his shoulders to try and speed to a maiden Test century but, after collecting his third six, picked out long-off.
England’s other main contributor was Root, who had been dropped on 6 on the third afternoon but looked in serene form until he edged a half-hearted cut to slip. His dismissal for 73 – the 10th time this year he has fallen between 50 and 100 – meant that Steven Smith was assured of finishing the year as the leading Test run-scorer. It has been a stellar 2015 for Root, who has scored the most international runs ever in a year for an England batsman, but he gave a frustrated kick of the turf as he made his way off.
Piedt was the main beneficiary of England’s attempt to play aggressively. Stokes came and went for 5 when he gloved a reverse sweep off Piedt in the same over as he had connected cleanly with the stroke. James Taylor, who had scampered and scurried, then charged and missed at a Piedt delivery which went straight on. He became the first South Africa offspinner in 50 years to claim a five-wicket haul in Test when Moeen was lbw on the sweep after a successful call to the DRS.