After the thrashing England received at the hands of South Africa in the 1st Test, these two teams have been quite evenly balanced this series. The 2nd Test was drawn, and neither side has so far taken control of the 3rd Test. No sooner does one team slump to 105-5 (SA), then the other team offers up 54-4 (Eng). Do either of them want to be No.1?
Well, yes, of course they do. It’s just that England and South Africa match up quite well in all departments. They’re athletic in the field, they bat and bowl well, and they’re equally capable of getting their decision reviews both right and wrong.
But there is a difference. In the top ten of the ICC rankings, South Africa have three bowlers (Steyn, Philander, Morkel) compared to England’s two (Anderson, Broad), and four batters (Kallis, Amla, de Villiers, Smith) to England’s two (Cook, Pietersen) – and Pietersen is not even playing here at Lords. This seems to corroborate what we all suspect: England are good, but the tourists are better.
Yet the South Africans do not quite seem to be pressing home their statistical advantage as we might expect. While they scored 309 in their first innings, England finished on 315 due to a fantastic 95 from Bairstow. Not only was he coming into the side in the wake of the Pietersen affair, but he came in to bat with England in serious trouble, and was also making a return to the side after not quite making a success of his first caps against the West Indies earlier this summer.
Such parity could, in some instances, take all the excitement out of the game, but not here. Each battle seems close-fought, and we recognise the achievement of England overhauling South Africa after such a poor start. And so the game effectively started again from scratch in the second innings – all square with two and a half days to play.
England will be disappointed to have only taken three wickets by the close of play, but they will still feel they are in the game despite the South Africans being 139 runs ahead with seven wickets in hand. Indeed, this is one of the most pleasing aspects of England’s game: they don’t seem to give up as they used to. The bowlers worked hard all afternoon, and Swann’s economy rate of 1.90 was excellent. Though scoring runs is not really an issue for SA. Draw the Test and they win the series to take England’s place as No.1 Test team.
So, discarding the hope and the optimism, how is this game really balanced? Well, South Africa will feel the most contented. All they need to do is play out the game; no chasing required; just bat until England run out of time to overhaul them. But this is Test cricket, and Day Four is another day. In fact, in total we have five of them – plenty of time for a pleasant surprise.