Kagiso Rabada completed a dream sequence with 13 wickets in the match as South Africa thumped England by 280 runs in the final Test at Centurion. England won the series 2-1, and can claim the bragging rights, but South Africa have their first Test win in 10 outings and evidence that the future is not necessarily as bleak as has been suggested.
South Africa’s victory was a convincing one, a splendid recovery after their defeats in Durban and Johannesburg. Most pride of all will come in the feat of Rabada, only the third South African to take so many wickets in a Test, following Makhaya Ntini and Hugh Tayfield. He finished with 13 for 145 in the match, pronouncing that he has the capability to become the inspiration in South Africa’s attack for many years to come.
From the start of their innings, England’s task was to try to bat long and hope that South Africa’s attack fell apart in front of their eyes. Kyle Abbott was carrying a hamstring, Rabada had borne a heavy workload and the unpredictability of Morne Morkel meant that he might go haywire if left to carry the pace bowling alone. With only three seamers, backed by the offspinner Dane Piedt, their threat might be neutered, even on a surface of variable bounce.
It all proved a hollow theory. Little went right for England for the outset. They lost three wickets in 21 overs on the fourth evening and capsized completely on the final morning, their last seven wickets disappearing for 49 runs in 13.4 overs. It is fair to suggest that they made no concerted attempt to save the match.
This enterprising England side is a batting line-up of great extremes, committed to a positive approach which can produce thrilling cricket but which also comes close to an abdication of responsibility in times of hardship.
There was talk among spectators of Cape Town 2010 when England began the final day three down and saved the match at 296 for 9 thanks to plucky backs-to-the-wall resistance from Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood. From the moment that Joe Root edged his first ball of the day, from Piedt, past the flailing gloves of the wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock that possibility seemed non-existent. In Centurion 2016 they did not even quite make it to the first drinks break.
South Africa had shrewdly given the first over to Abbott – an on-field fitness test in an attempt to gauge the level of his contribution for the battle ahead. One trundling over was enough to indicate he was unlikely to be a figure of heroic deeds.
Morkel replaced him and struck with his sixth ball, making the ball rear sharply at James Taylor who fended to the keeper. Bounce is one of Morkel’s greatest assets and he has always felt he could expose a player as short of stature as Taylor: this was how he imagined it would be.
Root was not attuned to the challenge. Shot-making has become central to his game as he has become one of the most prolific No. 4s in Test history, but there seemed little reason to be tempted into a drive at Piedt in the following over, the resulting edge flying to first slip.
Jonny Bairstow avoided a pair; Ben Stokes needed strapping around his chest after being struck by Morkel. Both were committed to attack. England had a chancy feel about them. Bairstow managed to get out twice in successive balls. Rabada overstepped for the first, as Bairstow hacked at a wide outswinger to be caught at slip, then the batsmen edged again, a more conservative push this time, de Kock taking the catch.
The daftest shot fell to Stokes – the Man of the Series, often an inspiration with bat, bowl and in the field, but daft all the same as he pulled a short one from Morkel to deep square leg. More than any other England batsman, attacking cricket is in his nature, but he had been suckered.
And so it went on. Another go-down-guns-blazing swing of the bat, this time from Chris Woakes, another wicket for the skilky-smooth Rabada. In his next over, Rabada rounded things off with wickets in successive balls, Stuart Broad beaten on the drive and James Anderson lbw first ball to a leg stump yorker. What a Test he has had. What expectations, at only 20, he must bear.
“Sometimes what you say makes no difference,” said Alastair Cook. “We are nowhere near the finished article.” He sounded like a captain whose speech had fallen on deaf ears. As England posed happily for the team photo, series victors, there should have been some guilt mixed in with the deserved celebrations to follow. (Courtesy ESPN Cricinfo)