The odds are stacked against Joe Root's side to salvage the Second Test
One thing is certain, if England do go down as seems likely, they will do so all guns blazing as they attempt to post the highest ever run chase to win the second Investec Test at Trent Bridge.
The reality, however, is that England, who survived 16 minutes to finish 1-0 at the close, will lose this Test match in the next 48 hours and by a resounding margin after South Africa posted 343-9 declared, setting them 474 to win.
The highest total chased down in a Test match is 418 by West Indies against Australia on a flat deck at St John’s, Antigua in 2003. The chances of it happening on a pitch beginning to misbehave with some uneven bounce are minimal.
This was a second chastening day on the trot for Root, who found himself unable to influence the relentless progress of the match in South Africa’s favour. He shuffled his bowlers as best he could but however he arranged them, the tourists had his hand beat.
South Africa hold a commanding 474 lead over England
England took six wickets, Ben Stokes producing his best bowling of the summer to finish with 2-34 from 20 overs and Moeen Ali mopping up another four to give him 14 in the series, but they will be footnotes in defeat.
Root will have things to ponder before they decamp all square to The Oval for next week’s third Test, not least of which stamping his authority on the process of reviews, because yesterday was a shambles.
The numbers are not great with 10 called during this series to date and just three successes which feels under par.
But yesterday there was no quality control or consultation with bowlers seemingly mandated to call them – Stokes and Broad – and one from the latter which should have been called but wasn’t after Hashim Amla, on 25, nicked behind. It all added to a sense of helplessness as the match drifted away.
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England headed to Sydney with the 2010-11 Ashes in the bag but a series win was at stake. Hundreds from Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Matt Prior set up a total of 644 before the seamers forced the tourists to an innings win
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And while Root and his vice-captain largely kept the smiles on their faces – at one point jumping up and down in unison in a comedic turn each time the groundsman thumped at the footholds at the Radcliffe Road End – it was a day to test patience.
South Africa had resumed on 75-1 and proceeded through the day at a stately pace. England might have had Amla early when Broad found the edge but nobody heard it, then Jimmy Anderson spilled what would have been a brilliant catch at gully to get Dean Elgar on 55.
By the time the opener was dismissed the pair had added 78 and South Africa had a lead of 283. Considering 284-6 is the biggest run chase on this ground (England against New Zealand in 2004) they were already in the clear.
Liam Dawson has had a disappointing two Tests with both ball and bat, getting a pair at Lord’s and just 13 in the first innings here and taking only five wickets. Yesterday he was hammered for 14 in one over by Amla, which can happen to a spinner, but it appears he has been identified as a weaker link by South Africa, which makes life difficult for Root.
When Elgar was bounced out by Stokes, the England captain did enjoy a small victory, replacing Dawson with Anderson when Quinton de Kock came out and getting him straight away edging behind.
Fortunately Dawson was able to exact his revenge on Amla after lunch too, getting the right hander out lbw after umpire Paul Reiffel had given him not out. The review was called and replays showed the ball hitting middle.
Otherwise it was hard graft and slow accumulation as South Africa captain Faf du Plessis led the way with a gritty half-century and Vernon Philander 42 before the tourists declared nine down.
Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings had to survive 16 nervy minutes and four overs at the death with the former successfully reviewing a decision first ball after Reiffel gave him out lbw to Morne Morkel.
Replays showed it was too high, which is something it had in common with England’s target.