South Africa v England, 4th Test, Centurion, 4th day January 25, 2016

Cautious South Africa likely to be vindicated

Having had a barren 12 months in Test cricket, South Africa played like a side remembering how to win for much of the fourth day but they had a bit of luck with a storm just skirting the ground and victory is within grasp

South Africa took a huge step towards vindicating their approach after some surprisingly timid tactics appeared to have offered England a lifeline in the fourth Test at Centurion.

Despite a lead of 175 overnight, South Africa took 66.2 overs to score 206 runs on the fourth day which, combined with a rain interruption, meant that England did not start their second innings until 5.10pm. With more rain possible on the fifth morning, it seemed an abundantly cautious ploy from their captain, AB de Villiers.

Only five times in the history of Test cricket has any side scored more than the 382 England were set for victory here. England's highest fourth-innings total to win a Test is 332 for 7 made against Australia in Melbourne in 1928-29.

On this ground, where no side has made more than 251 to win in the fourth innings - and that was in a game where both sides forfeited an innings - and where the cracks in the surface have created variable bounce, a total of anything over 250 would surely have proved testing.

But as South Africa's bowlers struck three times in the first 10 overs of the England innings, it appeared they had left themselves ample time to gain a consolation victory. Had Joe Root been stumped on 10 off Dane Piedt, as he should have been, South Africa's position would have been even more dominant.

Confidence may be one factor in South Africa's apparent caution. They have gone nine Tests and 12 months without a win - their longest winless run since readmission - and, having seen their bowlers thrashed around Cape Town by Ben Stokes, are fearful of what he, in particular, and Root could achieve.

They also had fears that their attack - which included only four specialist bowlers at the start of the game - may be weakened by injury to Kyle Abbott. He left the pitch towards the end of England's first innings reporting a hamstring strain and, though he took the field at the start of England's second innings, there is some uncertainty over how many more overs he will be able to contribute in this match. South Africa, understandably, did not want to leave themselves defending a total with only three first choice bowlers.

And, with James Anderson producing his best spell of the series - he dismissed Stephen Cook and AB de Villiers within the space of three balls in the morning - there was briefly a possibility that England could claw their way back into the match. But Hashim Amla, first with JP Duminy and then with Temba Bavuma, ensured there was to be no recovery.

While some late acceleration increased South Africa's run-rate to 2.97 runs-an-over, for much of the 117-run fifth-wicket stand in 37.4 overs between Amla and Bavuma, progress was strangely sedate. Despite wickets in hand and a large lead, South Africa with great application right up until tea and surprised most onlookers by resuming afterwards. Only the arrival of rain persuaded them to declare and, had the ground not avoided the worst of a storm that passed perilously close, England may have avoided batting at all on the fourth day.

Temba Bavuma helped extend South Africa's lead although the pace was never electric © Gallo Images

"The team game plan after tea was to bat a maximum of eight overs," Bavuma said afterwards. "Whatever amount of runs we managed to get in those eight overs was going to be that. Hashim took one for the team, he put aside his own personal glory and tried to get as many runs for the team, you can't fault him on that.

"We believe that the score we have set England is more than enough, especially on that wicket. You can't really control the rain."

But you can check weather forecasts and you can adapt your tactics accordingly. If England do escape on the fifth day - and their batting on the fourth evening didn't suggest it was terribly likely - South Africa may yet rue their caution.

"We probably were a little bit surprised by how long they batted," James Anderson admitted afterwards. "Especially given the conditions, which were a bit gloomy. But that's their decision.

"I did think we bowled well for the first session. We thought we could bowl them out and leave ourselves a reasonable total to chase. But it wasn't to be. They played really well and we couldn't capitalise on the early breakthroughs."

While several balls kept low at the start of the England innings, only one of the wickets to fall - Alex Hales, trapped leg before by one that also nipped back - was directly caused by uneven bounce. Perhaps Nick Compton allowed his concerns over the pitch to cloud him mind, though. His dismissal, edging one he could have left, was compounded by his decision to call for a review that supported the umpire's decision. Compton also came close to running out his captain as he scampered a sharp single to get off the mark. It was not, in short, an innings that will have done his long-term selection prospects a world of good.

Anderson conceded that England would require some fortune to survive on the final day. But, having been part of several matches where England have somehow salvaged a draw from difficult positions, he retained hoped.

Most memorably, Anderson was one of those who withstood the Australia attack at Cardiff in 2009 - a draw that helped England secure the Ashes - as well being part of the team in Auckland in 2013 and twice in South Africa in 2009. On this very ground, Paul Collingwood and Graham Onions held on for a draw with England nine wickets down.

"We'll need a bit of luck on a pitch like that," Anderson said. "We've seen bit of variable bounce and bit of spin as well but we have to be as positive as possible.

"Obviously it will be a tough task for us, especially on that pitch, which we've seen plenty of deterioration on. We'll be giving it a good go.

"The batsmen we've got left are positive naturally, just in attitude and character. It's not just the way people go about scoring runs it's actually positive in the fact we've got people who know they can bat a whole day in a Test. We've got the skill to do it."

If England do pull off their latest 'great escape,' South Africa may yet regret the sedate pace of their batting and the delayed declaration. So far, though, it looks as if they have given themselves plenty of time.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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