This was not the farewell that Vernon Philander would have hoped for. After rolling back the years with several pinpoint spells of nagging line-and-length seam bowling at Centurion, where he took 4 for 16 in 14.2 overs in the first innings, he has looked off the pace – to put it kindly – in consecutive defeats, and goes into his final international before joining Somerset with South Africa 2-1 down in the series.
But there would be few grounds on which he would prefer to bow out. He has a superlative record at the Wanderers, with 39 wickets in seven Tests there at an average of just 15.69, and if he is fit enough to bowl for a sustained period, then he will surely cause England some problems as he hopes for one last hurrah.
The outlook is still relatively bleak for South Africa. In the absence of Kagiso Rabada, their strike bowler and the leading wicket-taker in the series to date, and with their batting lineup looking increasingly brittle, Faf du Plessis desperately needs a response from his players after a lacklustre display at St George’s Park.
For England, the turnaround since the Boxing Day Test has been dramatic. Set up by their top-order’s ability to blunt the new ball and bat for prolonged periods of time, their batsmen have finally found the knack of posting big totals; in Port Elizabeth, they were a run away from a first 500+ total away from home since November 2016.
The reason for that is a clear change in approach introduced by new head coach Chris Silverwood, who has pushed the conversation away from ideas like positivity in defence and towards batting for hours at a time, worrying about crease occupation and survival rather than playing attacking shots against the new ball. According to ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball database, England’s control percentage for the series is 85.13% with the bat in this series so far, their highest away from home since their last tour here in 2015-16 (86.73%) with the exception of the trip to New Zealand at the end of last year (88.89%).
But for all the hard work done by Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley and Joe Denly, they have still relied on their middle order to help them press on. Their success on that front is in no small part thanks to the emergence of Ollie Pope, considered by many well-informed observers to be the best young batsman to break into the England team since Joe Root’s debut in 2012. After scores of 75 and 61* at Mount Maunganui and Newlands respectively, it seemed a matter of time before he made his first Test ton, and his unbeaten 135 in the third Test was compelling viewing. His late cuts and cover drives – plus his height and hair colour – have drawn predictable comparisons with Ian Bell, but there is a sense that the sky really is the limit for a man averaging over 60 in all first-class cricket.
Their bowlers have stepped up to the plate too, with Mark Wood’s pace catching the eye at Port Elizabeth and Jofra Archer shining in the nets on Wednesday. But it was their unlikely spin duo of Dom Bess and Root who did most of the damage, sharing ten wickets between them as South Africa got stuck on the crease time and again facing the offspinners. England have suggested that they will consider fielding an all-seam attack for the third time this winter, with Root and Denly providing the part-time options, though it is possible any of the seamers could lose their spot.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa LLWLL
In the spotlight
Faf du Plessis‘ form has been a constant worry for South Africa since the start of their tour to India, and while he has maintained publicly that he intends to carry on as Test captain until the end of their West Indies series in July, he could do with a score to ease some of the pressure on him. At Port Elizabeth, he was South Africa’s most composed batsman in the second innings, and looked to take the attack to England’s spinners, and is generally good against the short ball.
England look a surprisingly settled outfit given they are missing both an opening batsman (Rory Burns) and an opening bowler (James Anderson), but there is a cloud hanging over their wicketkeeper. Jos Buttler has averaged 22.17 since the start of last summer’s Ashes series, and after a difficult Test behind the stumps at Port Elizabeth, it looks increasingly likely that he will be given a chance to refresh and recharge during the tour of Sri Lanka with Ben Foakes the beneficiary. In fact, there is even an argument to suggest that a Buttler hundred at the Wanderers would complicate things; though he was given the public backing of assistant coach Graeme Thorpe two days out from the game.
It’s anyone’s guess as to how South Africa look to balance their side, not least given the absence of Rabada, banned after accumulating a fourth demerit point within a 24-month period. It seems certain that Temba Bavuma‘s career-best 180 last week will be enough to win him a recall, with transformation targets an important consideration, and the left-arm seamer Beuran Hendricks looks set to make his Test debut. Dwaine Pretorius and Andile Phehlukwayo are contenders for the final spot in the XI, though there remains an outside chance Keegan Petersen could make his debut at No. 3 if the hosts decide to go with only four frontline bowlers. South Africa fielded an all-seam attack last time they played here, so it is possible that Dane Paterson could keep his spot ahead of Keshav Maharaj.
South Africa (possible): 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Pieter Malan, 3 Rassie van der Dussen, 4 Faf du Plessis (capt), 5 Temba Bavuma, 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 Dwaine Pretorius/Andile Phehlukwayo, 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Keshav Maharaj/Dane Paterson, 10 Beuran Hendricks, 11 Anrich Nortje
Jofra Archer’s return to fitness and his impressive performance in Wednesday’s nets session means that he is likely to come straight back into the side. The big question, though, is who will make way. England’s management described Mark Wood as “sore” on Wednesday, but it seems as though he will be risked for back-to-back Tests for the first time since 2017. Dom Bess is set to be the fall guy, with Root and Denly providing the part-time spin options if required.
England (probable): 1 Dom Sibley, 2 Zak Crawley, 3 Joe Denly, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Ollie Pope, 7 Jos Buttler (wk), 8 Sam Curran, 9 Mark Wiid, 10 Jofra Archer, 11 Stuart Broad
Pitch and conditions
It’s been hot and humid in Johannesburg, and the forecast looked pretty mixed for the first three days of the game with some rain delays expected. If anything, that will only make conditions more favourable for seamers, and on a pitch with a reputation for bounce and carry, it should be a mouthwatering prospect for the quicks on both sides. Since 2010, seamers have averaged 25.63 at the venue compared to 40.82 for the spinners. Duanne Olivier was the destroyer in the most recent Test here, with short and back-of-a-length balls particularly effective as all but four wickets fell to seamers.
Stats and trivia
England’s 186th run of this Test – assuming they get there – will be their 500,000th in the format. They’ll become the first side to reach that landmark, with Australia some way back on 432,706.
A score in each innings should push Dean Elgar up towards the 4000-mark in Tests – he is currently 162 runs short – while he needs 110 more to reach 15,000 in first-class cricket.
Keshav Maharaj is one of only four bowlers to have taken 10+ wickets in the series, but he has struggled badly against England’s best players. Joe Root has scored at 5.84 runs per over against him, with Ben Stokes close behind at 5.04 – those are the two highest scoring rates for a batsman-vs-bowler matchup in the series (min. 50 balls)
Vernon Philander is currently second in South Africa’s bowling averages (min. 150 wickets) with 22.29, but a good final Test could see him squeeze past Allan Donald (22.29) into top spot. Unless he goes wicketless while conceding over 146 runs, he will end his career with a lower average than Dale Steyn.
The last time England won three successive Tests on a single tour of South Africa was back in 1913-14.
“The message is that he would like to see Vernon leave the game in the way he deserves. His last bowling performances here have been unbelievable. I want to see him get the storybook ending that he deserves. He has been such a great bowler for us for this Test team. Hopefully he can sign off on a high. He deserves respect. He has been one of the most skilful bowlers in the team.”
Du Plessis is hoping Philander can sign off with a win
“It would be nice to see how Wood and Archer go together. It would be a relentless barrage of pace which is exciting especially on this surface you typically get here at the Wanderers.”
Root hints that England’s two fastest bowlers will both play