New Zealand 321 for 4 (Williamson 148*, Raval 88) lead South Africa 314 by seven runs
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In another dimension, Kane Williamson would have the swagger befitting a man who became the fastest New Zealander to 5000 runs and their joint-highest century-maker all on the same day. In this one, he shies away from all praise. Perhaps, he suspects them to be in cahoots with those jilted awayswingers, always plotting against him just because they couldn't entice his outside edge.
South Africa tried for a good part of 73 overs to tempt him. There were bouncers that made the heart-rate flutter, reverse swing that melted the heart altogether, and sexy line and length as far as the eye could see. All of them, though, were brushed off by Williamson's soft hands and straight bat. He was the boring husband-to-be at a raging bachelor party, and thanks to his discipline, New Zealand rose to a position of strength in the Hamilton Test. They went to stumps on 321 for 4, with a lead of seven runs. Provided rain stays away, the final two days of this decider promise a whole heck of a lot.
Whatever the result, though, the fans at Seddon Park should toast to Williamson's success. Playing his 110th innings, he conquered Mount 5000 with a pull shot for six. Then, off his 151st delivery, a friendly old full toss from part-timer Dean Elgar, he whipped a four through midwicket and celebrated hundred number 17. The late great Martin Crowe had held both those records for New Zealand all on his own. Now, they have been passed down to his heir apparent. An heir who is only 26 years old and is yet to hit the ages when a batsman is considered to be in his prime.
At the other end was Jeet Raval, who made a career-best 88 off 254 balls, playing with nimble hands and steady feet. Over half his runs came behind the wicket as he enjoyed using the pace of the fast bowlers. Against spin, he dialled up midwicket, using his reach to get to the pitch of the ball and rolling his wrists over it. He deserved a century - not only would it have been his first, it would have been the first by a New Zealand opener against South Africa since 1953. But, towards the close, Raval became visibly bogged down, his concentration solely on being out there rather than scoring runs. He spent 25 balls on 83. He blocked full tosses. He could have got out to one. And, eventually, he was toppled by Morne Morkel with 14 overs to stumps. It was a gruesome end to a bloody-minded knock.
Then, South Africa found a way back into the match, getting rid of Neil Broom and Henry Nicholls, picking them up and tossing them aside like they were unwanted toppings on a slice of pizza. They could have had Mitchell Santner too if Vernon Philander hadn't overstepped off the delivery that flattened the off stump. And just like that - after hours and hours of it looking like New Zealand would sail ahead - the match was in the balance again.
As expected on the third day of the Test, batting became slightly easier. The grass on the pitch had died out despite spending a lot of time under the covers. They got an additional one-and-a-half hours this morning to recuperate, but all for nought. So the bowlers had to rely on reverse swing. That was then torn out of their armoury by umpires Bruce Oxenford and Rod Tucker in the 59th over, prompted into checking the shape of the ball after Philander sent a throw on the bounce in an effort to rough up one side of the leather. Faf du Plessis was utterly unimpressed with the decision, and Philander, from that point on, underamed the ball in from the deep.
Morkel took the 250th wicket of his career, exhibiting both his natural strengths and the experience he has gained over his 74 matches. He had seen Tom Latham quite content to leave everything outside off. So he went around the wicket to trick the left-hander into playing at something he shouldn't. A ball that was coming in for three-fourths of the way, pitched, straightened and nabbed the edge through to the wicketkeeper. Quinton de Kock dived to his left to pick up an acrobatic one-handed catch to seal a passage of play from the top draw.
Spin had started to have a say too, with left-armer Keshav Maharaj ripping it out of the footmarks. Williamson, wary of the threat, was quick to put him off his length, coming down the track several times, hitting a straight six in the process. Their captain's aggression helped New Zealand not lose a single wicket to the turning ball. At the other end, Morkel created doubts in Raval's mind over the position of his off stump from both over and around the wicket. Williamson, too, seemed to be hurried by deliveries that dipped and curled in at him, although remarkably, he was able to put a couple of them away for fours through square leg and midwicket.
Yet, on a day when all of New Zealand's top three made 50 or more for the first time at home, when they put on their third-highest partnership - 190 for the second wicket - ever against South Africa, their middle order put them back under pressure. Luckily for them, Williamson is so good at standing up to it.