Ben Jones looks at a remarkable end to the second Test.
This was, from start to finish, a subtle game, with unsubtle reactions.
The fury on the opening day as England collapsed again, in the face of good bowling, was exaggerated. We saw it again, with the excitement as South Africa fell away in reply. The crack on the pitch a distraction which grew as the match went on, but rarely caused havoc.
This was a surface that started out lively, but was not getting much livelier. Our PitchViz model, built using historical ball-tracking data, looks at the data from any given match and assesses how difficult batting must be, how tricky the conditions are. And while we did see the general worsening of conditions that you would anticipate with the longer format, it wasn’t radical. This was a subtle decline in standards – think more Oasis than Stone Roses – that insisted the game develop and progress at a gentler pace.
The collapses in the first innings, more the result of poor batting and good bowling than tough conditions, set the game up nicely. Ollie Pope’s late innings resistance dragged the tourists back into it, Dean Elgar’s 88 shaped to take it firmly in the hosts’ favour. Every time the game feigned one way, it dropped a shoulder and floated back the other.
And so the last day, in its own way, was reflective of the game in its entirety, resisting wholesale collapses or petering out into nothing. Instead it teetered on the brink of each result before falling back, not so much swinging as sidling. This was a Test which played out slowly, but never without purpose. This was a sink slowly emptying, the water cycling around quicker and quicker.
Before, at the very last minute, Ben Stokes popped the plug in. It fits with the theme, with the discussion of the days, that the very best ball of the match was the final one.
Our model suggests that the delivery to Philander, that lifting cracker just outside off stump, would on average have taken a wicket every 7.5 times it was bowled. No other delivery bowled on Day 5 was as dangerous, none in the Test as likely to do the job of prising out one of the eight batsmen England needed to claim victory. The calculation does not look at the context, the situation, the myths and legends that Stokes holds, the ink that has been spilled in his name. It considers the way the ball moves alone; its speed, its swing, its seam movement, its length and line, and any number of other factors.
139.17kph, moving 1.2 degrees away in the air and a further 0.9 degrees away off the pitch, it was a beast – but the real killer was the bounce. The wicket ball bounced 51cm more than the other ball Stokes sent down to Philander on that length. The South African seamer, the master of consistency, had all right to be shocked by the inconsistent spurt from the Newlands pitch. Nobody could have dealt with it, nobody could have coped. It was lethal.
This was a perfect ball for the moment, the perfect ball for the moment. For the umpteenth time in recent memory, Stokes reached deep and pulled out another piece of magic. With the last ball of the Test.
Sometimes, things are worth the wait. Somethings are worth sticking around for.
Time, at times, brings unique reward.
And yet, and yet. Plenty will try and skew the work of Sibley on the afternoon of Day 3 as the “boring passages” people talk of as the downside to five day cricket. It was not. That period was tense, purposeful, the absence of activity in terms of runs and wickets an intriguing thing rather than something to ignore.
The periods four-day cricket could well eradicate are seen elsewhere more readily. The days spent lifting 340 run leads into 550s, the deference to personal milestones that become the sole source of interest in drifting weeks of noncompetitive cricket. The boring stuff. Not this, not the slow play that drips from the pitch like treacle.
Like everything in 2020, the debate around it all has fallen along cultural lines, flung to opposing packs of rabid followers and commenters like a fresh carcass, something new to devour and scrap over and push cricket fans further into their own interest. This isn’t helpful to anyone.
In reality, the proposed changes are a question of lobbing 50-odd overs from the absolute maximum capacity of a red ball cricket match. It will make the game more vulnerable to weather conditions, but it will eradicate many dead days. It will allow for undoubted improvements in scheduling, but will reduce the grandeur of the format. It will bring some good, it will bring some bad.
And putting the language of hyper-real capitalism aside – a thing cannot be “an advert” for itself – there could scarcely have been a more perfect demonstration of why five day Test cricket should always be available, why four-day Tests should not be compulsory. Its almost unique qualities of scope and sprawl are not in doubt, and in Cape Town they were underlined more than ever. Let’s enjoy them.
That’s the best advert for five day Tests.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.