A “gut feeling” and the spark of a fight led to South Africa taking the crucial wicket of Ben Stokes and getting their own back against Jofra Archer as they took the series lead against England. South Africa’s first Test win in six matches and first since January hinged on a key moment and a key battle: Stokes’ wicket in the second innings and the contest with Archer, and they won them both.
Stokes was dismissed for 14 off 55 balls after spending an hour and 12 minutes patiently waiting to take South Africa on, while Archer was bounced out after delivering two beamers in South Africa’s innings that they thought should have seen him taken him out of the attack. Targeting the pair of them was South Africa’s way of signaling their rediscovered intent and sending a message about the way they want to play the game going forward: tough, but fair.
South Africa were hoping to wrest the advantage from England late on the second afternoon when Archer, frustrated with the runs he was conceding and eager to dismiss the nighwatchman, Anrich Nortje, bowled a beamer and then a similar high full toss. If that had been called a no-ball, Archer could have been removed out of the attack. When he wasn’t, South Africa were determined to exact their revenge.
“It’s a South African thing. We are a team of fighters,” Faf du Plessis said. “We love something that sparks a little something like that. Our feeling was that when he comes in, we will do exactly the same thing to him. We were pretty upset at the time, thinking the umpires would take him off. We were prepared to go short at him as well to make sure he gets the same.”
South Africa took on Archer with both bat and ball, with Quinton de Kock clubbing him for three sixes and a four and Nortje aiming for his head. De Kock’s approach allowed South Africa’s lead to build quickly while Nortje’s took them ever closer to victory. “The way Quinny played just showed why Quinny is such a good player,” du Plessis said. “We are very fortunate to have him in that position – No. 6 or 7 is where he has been so good for so long. And Anrich was bowling so well, we thought he would get another wicket.”
Nortje’s notched up the best performance of his three-Test career with an exceptional vigil as nightwatchman – a two-hour stint that yielded 40 runs during a match-winning stand with Rassie van der Dussen – and 3 for 56 in the second innings. Though it is still early days, Nortje has staked his claim as a regular to step up in Vernon Philander’s absence and impressed his captain with his all-round contribution. “As a team, we don’t have a lot of superstars,” du Plessis said. “You can say guys like KG and Vern are our stars but we take a lot more from victories where everybody contributes. Small things like Nortje getting 40 with the bat. Our bowling unit was exceptional. All of them put their hands up.”
None more so than Keshav Maharaj, who took the wicket of the one man who could make the impossible, possible: Stokes. Maharaj was hit for three fours in the second over of his afternoon spell but kept on, after du Plessis’ hunch that he would make a breakthrough.
“We had a lot of confidence in Kesh,” du Plessis said. “We kept saying that we feel that in the second innings Kesh would get Stokes out. And the way that Stokes plays, he is going to take the game on. We just had a gut feeling it was going to happen. He was a massive wicket for us at that stage. Stokes has proved that if he is around he can win the game on his own. Even though Kesh didn’t bowl as much as he would have liked, the wickets he got for us in the second innings were huge.”
Maharaj also took the wicket of Dom Sibley, ending an opening stand of 92. Other than that, Maharaj went under the radar, as the four quicks stole the spotlight, but du Plessis was adamant the spinner remains a key part of South Africa’s plans, even with two allrounders in the team.
“For a while we have been thinking that [playing two allrounders],” du Plessis said. “It’s easier for me to work with different bowlers then. In the past, on wickets that didn’t spin I had to go to Kesh and he has always produced. As a team we are much more balanced with the allrounders.”
In the end, South Africa’s combination in this Test gave them more options than they have previously had, showed them the potential they have on the circuit and restored their confidence after a difficult 2019. “It’s been a tough season, and been a while since our last victory. We trained hard and there was a good feeling in the camp that we’d done some really good stuff. We knew we needed to put in some performances to get the engine running,” du Plessis said.