Five working days. Five fantastic, festive, fraught and fun days in the most scenic office in world cricket.
The working week is what it is for a reason. Friday wouldn’t be as sweet if it wasn’t for Wednesday, when the weekend feels forever away. And so it is with Test cricket.
If ever the powers that be wanted an updated answer to the question around four-day Tests in future, South Africa and England provided compelling five-day evidence at Newlands in Cape Town during the second Test of the series. Maintain the status quo.
There is a rhythm that comes with the ultimate format, a dance that holds the promise of late drama when teams are finely matched. And South Africa and England have little to differentiate them at present. For one, they have both leant heavily on players still making their way in the international game.
Dom Sibley scored a maiden Test century in England’s second innings, carrying his bat with an obduracy that announced him in this company while allowing the brighter lights around him to flourish.
For South Africa, Pieter Malan had a promising debut, his 84 a shot in the arm for those who toil away in the unglamorous domestic game, clinging on to the dream of bigger grounds. There he was, via the back roads of Kimberley, Limpopo, Oudtshoorn… taking on the might of England and jousting with the very best.
When he was caught for 84, deep into the second day, it was telling that England celebrated as heartily as they did. As they traded punches and pleasantries in the lee of the mountain, it was emphasised just why the fifth day is so vital to this format of the game of cricket.
It is an ending, but it is also a place where weird and wonderful things begin to happen amid wearing surfaces and wilting bodies and minds. Balls start spitting out the rough, spinning wickedly, even from the wrists of part-time twirlers such as Joe Denly.
The mystery and destiny of day five needs the previous four days of honest endeavour, though. And then, on that pentagonal promise of potential, the entertainers rise and raise the roof with their riotous acts.
Many who saw him play at Newlands during the Proteas’ second Test against England will attest to the fact that English all-rounder Ben Stokes was, indeed, the difference.
He is a magnet for moments that matter, a spellbinding fusion of power, passion and a penchant for intoxicating drama. In Stokes, England have the ultimate cricketer.
“He is a golden nugget,” said English captain Joe Root with a smile, well aware just how priceless a player is Stokes.
His slip catching in tricky conditions, his batsmanship on the fourth morning and then his heat-defying, 90 mile/hour offerings with the ball, late on day five, are skills and bottomless wells of will that would be happily spread across several players.
You only have to listen to the reverent nature with which the travelling Barmy Army serenade him to realise his importance to the team.
At the eleventh hour, with South Africa seemingly stealing the draw, it was left to Stokes to deliver the coup de grace. Dwaine Pretorius, gone. Anrich Nortje, gone. And then, finally, Vernon Philander left for last in his final act at his beloved Newlands.
It had to be Stokes, as it was on the occasion of the 2019 ICC World Cup final, or on an outrageous day at Headingley. He is the talisman every Test team craves. Sod that, he is the cricketer any team wants. He does it all, and he hurt South African chances decisively.
England have momentum but, much more than that, they have Stokes. And that means anything is within their grasp.
South Africa, bereft of the emotion of the opening Test, need the break. A few key men need to rouse themselves in a way they haven’t in a long time – in Test clothing, anyway.
The home side requires their captain to make telling runs. They need him to close his passage of service with a smile, rather than a grimace.
Faf du Plessis admitted that his shot before lunch on the final day was a mental error. It was a body blow to his team, just as they were looking for his resilience to protect them.
In his final moments as captain of his country, Du Plessis will want to finish with a roar rather than a whimper. He will also need to get more out of his attack, who Stokes bullied at stages.
Kagiso Rabada, the sharp end of the attack, needs to find his mongrel. His country needs him bristling, as he was when Australia were in Port Elizabeth in 2018, the scene of the second Test of that series.
The edge of contempt
England sensed weakness in the home side at Newlands and finished the contest with a few choice verbal morsels aimed at the lower order. Rabada is not the type to simply brush something like this off and would have made a mental note of the offence. South Africa needs Rabada rabid, nudging the edge of competitiveness and contempt.
Coach Mark Boucher likened his team to a wounded buffalo before the series and that remains a formidable beast. England, however, liken themselves to lions, and they certainly acted as a pride, stalking and then moving in for the kill at Newlands. They will want to deliver the mortal blow in the Windy City, because a win for England will retain the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy at the very least.
The local buffalo dare not contemplate that fate, so they will lick their wounds – mental and technical – and go again.
It is terrifically set up, with all outcomes still possible. England have the momentum, of course, but a week is a long time in cricket.
As we were reminded at Newlands, a lot can happen in five days.
England’s 12th man
England and their booming Barmy Army colonised Cape Town, turning Newlands and its surrounds into a bouncing Edgbaston with a view. It was quite a sight, and an even more startling sound. Root calls the legion of travelling supporters their “12th man” and it is no exaggeration to say the crowd helped the team over the line.
But South Africa want their land back, on and off the field. Need their land back.
There is change afoot in South African cricket but the change they really need is one in fortunes. The Proteas surely want to win a series of significance again and that means taking down one of the Big Three.
South Africa accounted for India and Australia in 2017-2018, that summer of sandpaper that was also AB de Villiers’ last sensational season. How the Proteas would love his wizardry now as they strive to take down the third of the Big Three, the English frat boys in the cricketing school yard.
Ultimately, the South Africans need new heroes. They need an antidote to the rampant Stokes and, tough though that ask may be, they need it in a week’s time.