South Africa 314 and 80 for 5 (Du Plessis 15*, de Kock 15*, Patel 2-22) trail New Zealand 489 (Williamson 176, Raval 88, de Grandhomme , Morkel 4-100, Rabada 4-122) by 95 runs
New Zealand’s home season had gone a little something like this: reclaimed their beloved Chappell-Hadlee Trophy, conceded a total of 595 to then win the Test and set a world record, spirited nine wickets in the final session on the final day to seal a whitewash. They had about as much to prove as ice does of being icy.
Then came the great Wellington collapse, which led BJ Watling to say, “I don’t think we will judge our season on that last game. But we might on this one.” If so, going into their last day of 2016-17, five wickets away from securing their first win over South Africa in a decade, should get a Colin de Grandhomme-sized thumbs up.
The 30-year old allrounder was at the centre of New Zealand’s dominance after all, making his first half-century, and topping that up with the wicket of Dean Elgar – who in an ideal world would be the brand ambassador of Velcro. “Stick things together as tight as I stick to the crease”. An early wicket was the last thing South Africa needed after spending 162.1 overs in the field. Not since June 2010 have they had to flog themselves so badly.
The fatigue was apparent in the dismissals of two of their most important players. Hashim Amla kept poking at deliveries wide outside the off stump. But his feet weren’t moving at the usual lightning speed. The bat wasn’t coming down with the same rapier-like flourish. One of the most mentally strong cricketers in the world played one of the doziest shots as he cut Jeetan Patel tamely into to the hands of slip. Four overs later, the offspinner had JP Duminy bowled while shouldering arms and South Africa were 50 for 4 – and 125 runs behind. It began looking like ten times that number when Matt Henry had Temba Bavuma caught behind off the second ball of his second spell.
Faf du Plessis – the majority shareholder of Blockathon Inc. – and Quinton de Kock – suspected Gilchrist clone – were the survivors of a day South Africa would only want to remember if they summon their superpower to draw Tests out of nowhere.
It is going to be difficult though. The pitch has begun to take sharp turn. There were footmarks outside both the right-hander and the left-hander’s off stumps. And though it was the fourth day, there was still seam movement for the fast bowlers. Challenges that players at the peak of their ability would find difficult, let alone a set who had just spent the equivalent of two full days chasing leather.
It is at a time like this that you don’t want silly dismissals. It is at a time like this that irony cannot resist butting in. And South Africa lost their other opener Theunis de Bruyn – a man who has played the majority of his professional career as a middle order batsman – to a run-out borne of a ghastly misunderstanding.
It was the 12th over and Amla defended the ball to mid-off solidly. But the minute he did so, he began haring down the pitch, not noticing that his partner had already turned his back. By the time de Bruyn cottoned on to what was happening, he was wrapped up in a collision with Amla. There was nothing he could do but stand in the middle of the pitch and stare helplessly as Kane Williamson’s throw was gathered at the wicketkeeper’s end and the stumps were broken.
The final session, when New Zealand simply ran amok, was set up by the first two, when New Zealand could be best described as glacial.
The day began with their making only 76 runs in 206 deliveries. The plan clearly was to keep wickets in hand so they could kick on after lunch. Half an hour to the break though, their key man, Williamson, was bounced out by Morne Morkel after making 176. And off the last ball of the session, they lost Mitchell Santner for 41 off 151 balls.
South Africa would have been pleased with their morning’s work. Their bowlers – despite the miles in their legs – were still able to keep tight lines and lengths. Santner’s presence at the crease – and his propensity to be unsettled by short balls – also helped as he took his time to work through his troubles.There were only seven boundaries in the session – only three in the first hour of play when New Zealand nudged their overnight score by 32 runs in 17 overs.
A team that needed a win to level the series batting as if they were in the nets seemed bizarre, but Williamson knew the effect it would have on the South Africans. He also knew he had de Grandhomme down the order to biff a few when needed. And finally, if everything went to plan, his spinners would have a well worn pitch to exploit.
It was all reminiscent of New Zealand’s unexpectedly brilliant run in the World T20 in 2016. They couldn’t take the trophy then, but if they can hold their disciplines for one more day – and rain stays away – a prize equally as coveted could be theirs – victory over a team they haven’t beaten for 13 years.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo