Mark Boucher knew taking the job of South Africa head coach would be “very tough”, but would not be drawn into whether the situation in the country’s cricket is worse than he anticipated. Instead, he says his efforts are fully focused on putting in the work that will lead to the team’s improvement in the long term, which he warned will take time.
“I always knew it was going to be very tough. We’ve got a lot of hard work to do,” Boucher said. “We’ve set up different processes in the near future to up-skill the guys. It is tough times but we’ve got the attitude in the dressing room that we want to try and get back to where we should be and we understand it’s going to take a lot of hard work, but that’s what we are prepared to do. It’s been a tough and dark period for us over the last couple of weeks but the efforts are still there, as we saw in the field today. I thought the guys tried really hard.”
South Africa’s second-innings effort in the field was considerably better than their first, in which they conceded 400, including a last-wicket partnership of 82, and set puzzling fields. Today, they bowled to clear plans and struck regularly, even without Vernon Philander who only managed nine deliveries before sustaining a hamstring tear. Beuran Hendricks followed Anrich Nortje with a maiden five-wicket haul and England were bowled out for 248.
Had it not been for England’s massive first-innings lead, South Africa would have been fairly pleased with their efforts. However, they now face a near-impossible task, a record chase of 466 with a batting line-up that has not crossed 300 in this series. Boucher has put the onus on top six, particularly those who have not been in form, to step up.
“We are still not scoring the runs we need to, especially with regards to the top six, which is putting us under pressure” Boucher said. “In order to win a Test match, you need to go out there and score runs and that’s where we are suffering at the moment. If you look at the amount of time we’ve got in the game, we’ve still got to look at going for a win. It’s quite a few runs to chase down – it’s never been done before – but we’ve got to hold on to some sort of positivity. And also the fact that quite a few of our batters are due as well. It’s going to be tough but we will give it a go.”
Among those who are in the spotlight is captain Faf du Plessis, who has gone ten innings without a half-century. He was stood down from the ODI captaincy last week and is due to meet acting director of cricket Graeme Smith after this series to discuss his future. In what could be du Plessis’ final Test innings, Boucher hopes he can draw inspiration from a sensational one-handed catch, with which he dismissed Joe Root to end the England second innings.
“He is under pressure from a weight of runs as well, from captaincy, all that stuff,” Boucher said. “The players back him in the dressing room. It’s nice to see him take that catch towards the end of the day. Hopefully it will lift his spirits. He will go out there and fight. He understands that he is the leader and he wants to do well and lead from the front. Hopefully there is something big around the corner for Faf. The whole scene is set for him to come in under pressure and score big runs and hopefully get us close to winning a Test match.”
As improbable as it seems, Boucher has to entertain the possibility that, if South Africa bat for two days, they could win the game. And statistically speaking, scoring over 400 is not a completely crazy thing to consider doing here. In 2013, South Africa finished eight runs short of a target of 458 against India, in an innings that featured a du Plessis century. All that’s required is to get through the new ball and hope for a captain’s knock.
“I don’t think there is any opportunity to second-guess yourself,” Boucher said. “We just need to get off to a good start and allow ourselves to maybe put a bit of pressure on the bowling line-up. I’d like to see us take it deep into the last day. If that’s the case, the English bowlers would have spent a lot of time on their feet and that’s maybe when we can throw that punch to try and win the game, but there’s a lot of hard work that needs to go in before that.
“It’s a new-ball wicket. It did go around for 30-odd overs, when it does get a bit softer batting gets a bit easier and stroke-making becomes easier. Its difficult for a bowling side to keep the run rate down. There are ways and means to go about getting 450 and we need to try and do that.”