South Africa grind down second-best New Zealanders
What a difference a day makes. At the close yesterday New Zealand were in the better position, but after a day of poor batting from them and obduracy from Jacques Kallis and Hasim Amla, it was South Africa who appeared to have already done enough to win this match. They went to stumps on 179 for 2, leading by 287.
The heart was ripped out of New Zealand in a morning session when they lost five wickets for 56, and their capitulation was complete when their last three wickets fell inside 21 balls of the resumption. Then, needing quick wickets, they made early breakthroughs before hitting a brick wall in the shape of Kallis and Amla.
Had Brendon McCullum held a thick edge when Amla had made 2 then it might have been different, but in fairness New Zealand's batting looks so fragile and uncertain that a first-innings deficit of 108 had probably almost finished them off anyway.
New Zealand started on 41 for 2, and although they lost Shane Bond, the nightwatchman, early on, they should still have been at home on a pitch that, while quickening up overnight and becoming bouncier, was still fundamentally a good surface to bat on. But they were unsure against anything short of a length and their footwork was poor, and they paid.
More importantly, Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn, Andre Nel and, latterly, Kallis, all bowled superbly. They all found a rhythm and added to the pressure by strangling the runs. It was absorbing, the only shame being that there was only another pathetically small crowd despite the glorious sunshine.
Stephen Fleming was the key for New Zealand. He continued where he left off last night, stroking two fours, slashing at a few, and being forced to duck and weave as Steyn and Nel tested him out. It was Ntini who produced a peach to remove him, moving one across the left-hander which he had to play, AB de Villiers at third slip clutching a catch inches from the ground. Fleming then headed off for X-rays after being hit on the forearm and sat out the rest of the day, although he should be able to bat again.
Much as Bond and Chris Martin had done yesterday, the quick bowlers piled on the pressure with accurate and testing bowling. In his second over Kallis removed Scott Styris, his feet planted as he fenced at and nicked a good delivery short of a length outside his off stump. It was poor technique from a frontline batsman, and in the next over Kallis took a good second-slip catch when Jacob Oram was surprised by one from Steyn that angled into his midriff. Kallis was again centre stage in his next over when Ross Taylor, on his debut, slashed a wide one straight to Herschelle Gibbs at gully.
If the morning had been poor, after lunch was worse but mercifully brief as New Zealand's last three wickets went down with a whimper. Daniel Vettori fell four balls after the resumption, getting a leading edge as he tried to work Ntini through midwicket. Iain O'Brien then left Ntini seething with an eyes-shut six and two fours through the off, but it was no more than a corpse twitching.
With the first delivery of his 15th over Dale Steyn trapped McCullum back in his crease, and despite the batsman's clear unhappiness with the decision, it appeared a straightforward call. Chris Martin was greeted with a bouncer, followed by one pitched up which he tried to flick into the leg side and, like his captain, he only got a leading edge to complete Steyn's five-for.
New Zealand needed quick wickets, and they started promisingly. Gibbs, yesterday's rock, unleashed one four before he too paid for a lack of footwork and Graeme Smith, as we have seen so many times, was left overbalancing by a ball fired in at his feet by Martin from round the wicket. For the second time in as many days, South Africa were 20 for 2.
But it was what happened in between those dismissals that really mattered. Bond found Amla's edge - again largely because of an absence of footwork - and McCullum did everything right, even getting both gloves to the ball, but he spilt the catch. Amala wasted no time in making New Zealand pay, cracking a series of fours through the off side, and as the day went on he grew in confidence, bearing no resemblance to the uncertain batsmen he was yesterday.
Kallis was typically Kallis, obdurate, solid, but unleashing some sublime shots in between watchful periods. He was rattled a few times and was shaken by a Martin bouncer which clattered into his helmet. But he picked himself up, dusted himself down, and resumed grinding down the bowlers.
New Zealand's heads dropped as the shadows lengthened, Amla and Kallis bringing up their 150 stand in the penultimate over, and Vettori looked unable to lift his new charges. In the last hour O'Brien twice had raucous appeals for catches behind dismissively turned down by Daryll Harper - rightly according to replays - but by then you suspected that Vettori and his side knew that their chance had long since gone.
Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo