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South Africa vs England Test cricket series: Alastair Cook's men ride their luck for a draw

It was a draw, but a far from boring one, because England staged one of their batting collapses. South Africa, although 1-0 down, will go into the third Test in Johannesburg on Thursday with their captains rearranged and their confidence revived.

Jonny Bairstow of England takes a break as he waits a stumping decision during day five.
Jonny Bairstow of England takes a break as he waits a stumping decision during day five. Photo: Getty Images

Never before had a Test team lost after posting 600 in their first innings, but there is a first time for everything. What England will learn is that if you score 629 in only 130 overs, there is still so much time left - three and a half days - for the match to be turned on its head.

England's faltering, as they lost six wickets in 43 overs with never a partnership in sight, contrasted starkly with South Africa's surging confidence.

The transition from Hashim Amla, following his mid-series resignation, to their one-day captain AB de Villiers will not only be a seamless one but will strengthen South Africa in the last two Tests.

Whether the captaincy is sufficient to keep De Villiers playing Test cricket after this series is a matter that will have to wait: South Africa's next Test series, against New Zealand, is not until August. But for the moment a more out-going personality, and a much better fielder, will improve South Africa's chances, even if England still have to be favourites to win.

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The first indication that change was in the air came after a South African squad photo before the resumption on day five, when De Villiers gave the speech in the huddle. It was quite an animated one, which Amla listened to attentively, before the players bounced out to the middle to give England a scare. And it is a good time to take over the Test captaincy: the batting of Amla and Temba Bavuma, by enabling their team to achieve parity on first innings, had gelled this young South African team overnight.

Animated and up for it, South Africa dismissed Alastair Cook when he touched a catch down the leg side to round off his second poor match of this series: seven runs in Durban, 35 here.

Cook's leadership could also be faulted, as seldom of late, for he let his pace bowlers get away with too short a length, and set fields which confirmed them in the habit.

From the moment South Africa's pace bowlers - who also had been too short in England's first innings - found a fuller length, the pitch was shown to be far from lifeless. The ball started zipping around and beating the bat, and England were taken by surprise, their assumption that it would be a draw rudely shaken - much as Pakistan had been on the last day in Abu Dhabi when their wickets finally tumbled.

Morne Morkel produced a couple of steep lifters for Alex Hales and Joe Root. Hales tried too loose a shot for the situation and was held at third slip - Chris Morris's right-handed catch was bettered only by his left-handed grab to dismiss Cook first time round as the catch of the match - and Root at second by De Villiers. Only Morkel had no-balled and England breathed again, if in increasingly shorter gasps.

Root had progressed from 17 to no more than 29 when he was out, to an outswinging half-volley: anything pitched up could do a job. But it was the innings of a senior batsman in that by playing his shots he helped raise the siege, a little.

Nick Compton on the other hand painted himself into a corner, like Ian Bell on one of his more troubled days. England would have gone nowhere if both batsmen had scored 15 off 60 balls. Finally forced to break out, Compton chipped an off-break to midwicket.

Taylor, like Root and the still-swashbuckling Ben Stokes, stopped South Africa crowding the bat completely. Taylor straight-drove a six off Dane Piedt - and was caught off a top-edged sweep by Kagiso Rabada in mid-air, only for the ball to spill out as he hit the ground. When Taylor was gloved and caught at short-leg, England were 118 ahead with only four wickets left.

That was England's lowest point. Jonny Bairstow took control of the incipient crisis by a combination of Yorkshire grit and playing straighter than probably any point in his Test career.

He deserved his couple of "red-inkers" in this game that have transformed his Test average from a modest 28 to a respectable 33. Even then the alarm sounded when Bairstow was almost stumped off Dean Elgar, who cunningly flighted one, such as Moeen Ali needs to do. Only by a millimetre did Bairstow slide his back foot back before the bail left its groove.

England were going to be safe so long as they lasted until tea, because not even De Villiers was going to achieve six runs an over with all the fielders around the boundary. Still, England were grateful for the clouds that started to envelop Table Mountain, and reports of rain in Simonstown, and for the five minutes that it took the third umpire, Rod Tucker, to decide that Bairstow had just got his foot back in time.

The floodlights came on at roughly the same time England realised the game was safe. They had been guilty of gradually taking their foot off South Africa's throat, and literally letting the chances to finish them off slip through their fingers, but survived. By the strictest definition they missed 10 chances in the field, of which a good Test fielding side would have taken half.

At Johannesburg England will have to take their game to 5,000 feet and a new level. There is no need to change their XI; but Trevor Bayliss is bound to make their pips squeak during fielding practice, just as he did in Spain ahead of the Ashes.

As an undeserved piece of luck for England, South Africa look as though they will still be without their normal opening attack of Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander for the third Test - Steyn has to see a specialist later this week - and probably for the series. If De Villiers had them to deploy, England would not be favourites.

The Telegraph, London

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