Sunday 19 January 2020 9:18 pm

South Africa v England: Joe Root's wickets leave visitors on the brink of victory and series lead

Only rain can stop them now.

It’s not a statement which you would expect to be true about England playing an away Test match against South Africa, but after a nigh on perfect fourth day in Port Elizabeth the visitors are on the brink of taking a 2-1 series lead. 

England began Sunday needing 14 wickets to win. Despite getting in just 66 overs because of poor weather, they ended it with just four more left to claim. 

As is often the case in sport, one side’s utter dominance came as a mixture of their brilliance and their opponents’ shortcomings. With rain threatening the final two days, the Proteas were faced with the very real possibility of saving the Test. 

Had they seen off the new ball, worn out the England bowlers and showed some fight they could have gone a long way to extinguishing any hope of victory. Instead South Africa contrived to lose 10 wickets for the addition of just 103 runs, helping the visitors charge towards consecutive wins. 

Coaches and pundits talk of having positive intent when batting to try and force a draw. The idea is that, although runs are essentially immaterial, by looking to score the batsman is in a better mindset; he can build confidence and throw bowlers off their lengths.

South Africa failed miserably to find a happy, productive medium, veering wildly from reckless attack early in the day to meek sitting-duck defence later on. 

South Africa surrender

In a scarcely believable opening 25 minutes, England claimed the four remaining first-innings wickets in 28 balls for the cost of a solitary run. Vernon Philander and Quinton de Kock were castled attempting booming drives to the new ball, Keshav Maharaj dragged on trying to pull and Kagiso Rabada chipped to mid-off. 

They may be lower order batsmen, but they are all also experienced players who should know better. Their decision-making was tantamount to surrender. 

Keshav Maharaj
South Africa’s lower order put up no resistance early on (via Getty Images)

Root had no hesitation in enforcing the follow-on for the first time since defeating West Indies at Edgbaston in 2017. It may have been a rare occurrence for England, but Faf du Plessis’ team have now been asked to follow on three times in their last five Tests, having not had to once in the preceding 100 matches. 

It’s a statistic which reveals just how far the Proteas have fallen – and why another away series win in South Africa, to go with the 2-1 victory four years ago, is achievable for Chris Silverwood’s team.

England on-Root to win

If the hosts’ capitulation to Stuart Broad and Sam Curran was surprising, the identity of their second innings tormentor was even more so.

After Mark Wood had bowled Dean Elgar with a beauty and had Zubayr Hamza caught down the legside, it was Root who stepped up to take career-best figures of 4-31 and leave South Africa on the ropes at 102-6. 

Ollie Pope
Pope caught brilliantly at short leg for England (via Getty Images)

Root’s round-arm, skiddy off-breaks should not trouble Test match batsmen. Generally, they don’t. England’s captain had taken 24 wickets from 2,364 balls in Test cricket before this game, but suddenly, with panic in the air, South Africa made him look like Muttiah Muralitharan.

Pieter Malan was pinned lbw, Ollie Pope snaffled two catches at short leg to dismiss Rassie van der Dussen and Du Plessis, while De Kock brainlessly slashed to point.

Philander, who was dropped twice playing the pull shot, and Maharaj remain unbeaten, but if the rain stays away long enough tomorrow morning that won’t be the case for long.