Watch highlights from the fourth and final day of the fourth Test as England hammered South Africa by 191 runs to win the series 3-1
It was all starting to feel a little bit familiar.
England away from home, an ageing Kookaburra ball and a pitch offering precious little for the bowlers. The partnership between Rassie van der Dussen and Faf du Plessis was approaching three figures and for the first time in South Africa’s second innings, there were a few furtive glances at the runs, rather than wickets, required for victory.
The hosts were still a long, long way off but the runs were starting to flow. Van der Dussen having been so timid against the spinners in Port Elizabeth had transformed and was taking them apart at the Wanderers – it is amazing what watching a Nasser Hussain demo can do!
That part-time spinners Joe Root and Joe Denly were leaking runs will not have greatly concerned England, what was more of an issue was how little was happening for the seamers at the other end. A pitch that was supposed to be going up-and-down off the cracks was holding up remarkably well.
Furthermore, the tourists’ demeanour in the field was flatter than the surface. The sun was beating down and frustration was starting to creep in. We weren’t at panic stations just yet but for those who have watched the England Test team in recent years, the warning signs were all there. There was huge potential for this all to unravel. Near-guaranteed victory turned to embarrassing defeat.
Early in the 54th over, Van der Dussen guided the ball comfortably through point for a single. It was met by silence from the England fielders. The kind of energy there had shown to put themselves on the brink of a series win had evaporated. Mark Wood has been a big part of that and he simply was not having it, urging his team-mates to liven up and offer a bit more encouragement.
Wood’s next ball was banged in hard but ducked easily enough by Du Plessis. The message had been received though and there was a loud and positive response from the fielders. Another bouncer followed and in fending it off, Du Plessis wobbled and nearly fell back onto his stumps.
Suddenly, England were up and things became a little feisty out in the middle. Runs were still flowing for South Africa but the visitors were not taking it lying down.
Words were exchanged at the end of an over when Sam Curran’s throw to the keeper’s end struck Du Plessis. The Proteas captain bumped into Jos Buttler while Ollie Pope, Stuart Broad and Joe Root also wanted a chat with him. Broad has since been fined for his remarks, making him the third England player to be reprimanded, and fifth overall, in the series.
England captain Joe Root talks of his pride at clinching a Test series win over South Africa and the importance of player-of-the-match Mark Wood
We have seen England pumped up and showing aggression like this plenty of times but previously it has tended to derail them and make them lose sight of their plans. Here though, while emotions ran high, it did not cloud their thinking.
“When it gets like that, I think that is an area we’ve really improved on in this trip,” Root said post-match.
“It takes more than just skill to take wickets sometimes. You’ve got to have something else, it’s an attitude thing and we definitely delivered that just before tea and it really made a big difference coming into the last session.”
Of course, in situations like this it always helps to have a cricketer like Ben Stokes, who is the very embodiment of that attitude. It is not a coincidence that he so often produces these match-altering moments. The all-rounder always wants to be in the game but never more so than when his team is up against it, he wants to be the man to put it right and these days it is rare that he doesn’t succeed.
In Johannesburg, he did it again, bowling Du Plessis with a ball that stayed low. A 92-run partnership broken and England back on track. Just another one to add to the list.
Ben Stokes made the initial breakthrough when he bowled Faf du Plessis
England were buoyed but with Van der Dussen still there, South Africa’s best batsman, Quinton de Kock, having just walked in and knowing how hard they had had to work for the last wicket, they knew it was not done yet.
Seven balls later though, they were celebrating as if it was. The plan had come together and Van der Dussen was gone, two runs short of a maiden Test century.
England had taken their time before the start of Wood’s over to ensure the field was exactly right. Men out on the hook, a man almost acting as a backstop in case of a ramp shot, Pope under the lid at a deep short leg position, there were a few in on the one as well but it seemed clear there was some short stuff coming. First ball of the over there was, defended by Van der Dussen.
Wood went around the wicket next ball. Definitely a bouncer on the way. No, full on off stump, enticing the drive and Van der Dussen obliged but clothed it straight to Broad, lurking at short extra-cover.
Wood roared as he was mobbed by his team-mates, Root broken away from the huddle to punch the air in the direction of the travelling supporters and Van der Dussen hung his head before dragging himself slowly from the pitch.
Mark Wood took the big wicket of Rassie van der Dussen as England’s plan worked to perfection
There was almost a glee among the England players that they had denied the South African his century, it was nothing personal but having been frustrated for so long, they were fired up and did not want to give their opponents anything.
Victory was still six wickets away but that was the moment both sides knew the game was up, beyond any reasonable doubt.
In the space of six overs, they had snuffed out any hope that had grown within South Africa as Van der Dussen and Du Plessis accumulated. It took no shortage of skill to do so but as Root pointed out, that alone is not always enough.
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This was about what ex-players often refer to as “hard cricket”, that fierce will to win, controlled aggression and refusal to back down. The very best sides have all had it, perhaps none more so than the great Australian team of the 1990s and early 2000s.
This England team is nowhere that level, of course – certainly not yet. However, there are green shoots of recovery for Root’s men. They do finally appear to have the tools within the squad to compete at home and abroad but keeping hold of the attitude they showed for those six overs before tea at the Wanderers will be as important as any player as their development continues.