Vernon Philander was properly ill. Not just a little under the weather, not just a sniffy nose and sore head, not just a I'd-rather-stay-in-bed-than-go-to-work-today attitude, but properly, properly ill. So ill that he spent the best part of two days in the toilet and then a night in hospital hooked up to a drip. A person that ill should probably not be playing an international match.
But South Africa had no choice. Philander was their two-in-one and if they had to go in without him, they would have to make major adjustments to the XI which would probably have meant bringing in both Theunis de Bruyn and Duanne Olivier and sacrificing the spinner Keshav Maharaj. De Bruyn and Olivier have only played two Tests each, the pitch had a bit of juice in it and there was generous overhead cover so you can understand why South Africa wanted Philander. Even at 50%.
Faf du Plessis explained that Philander half-fit "would still be better than most people" and South Africa had a plan to manage him. Bat first and bat big, so that Philander would have the day to rest and by the time he was needed, he would be feeling better. The plan backfired.
When England won the toss, it turned out they also wanted to bat first so Philander, with an empty stomach and light head, not only had to get on the field but had to be at his best immediately. He delivered four overs of perfection upfront and that was all he could muster. And so it went.
Philander would spend most of that day and the next off the field, even though he was able to return for three more spells. He bowled 17 overs in total, nine fewer than Kagiso Rabada, 11.2 fewer than Morne Morkel, and he still took two wickets and cost the team only 32 runs. If only he could have done more, thought du Plessis. "England scored 100 runs too many. It was a case of Vernon not being there and our other bowlers not being good enough."
By the time Philander was hospitalised, South Africa actually needed him to bat. They were 47 for 5 when he should have come in and 161 for 9 when he did. He had been given a conditional discharge from his sick bed, having been diagnosed with a viral infection. South Africa's gamble to include him had not paid off and over the next two days, it was only going to look like more of a mistake.
Philander soon needed to bowl again and though he beat Keaton Jennings' inside-edge three times and had him dropped once, he was obviously not at his best. His six-over spell cost 30 runs.
South Africa expected Philander's condition to have improved significantly by the second day but on the fourth, he was still struggling. At one stage, he stopped mid-pitch, hands-on-knees, doubled over in pain. His face was twisted into an expression that said, "Get me out of here." He finished the over but then slowly he took his jersey back from the umpire, walked towards long-on where he was supposed to field and realised he couldn't. He gestured to the change-room. Aiden Markram bounded back on the field for the umpteenth time and gave Philander a friendly bump on the shoulder. Philander looked as though he would collapse from the blow.
This is the same Philander who was last week talking about a maiden Test hundred "hopefully" being around the corner. There wouldn't have been a better occasion for him to do it than in the second innings here and he been in full health, who knows what he may have been capable of. He has scored two impressive half-centuries on this tour already, has earned a promotion to No.7 and has become a player South Africa cannot replace, even if they have to.
It's not Philander's fault that the attack conceded over 300 in bowler-friendly conditions in both innings of this match. It's the rest of them that are to blame. While Morkel sent down some of the best spells of his career, Rabada still lacked rhythm and Chris Morris, who is only in his fourth Test, needs to find consistency. Sans Dale Steyn South Africa's attack is still finding the best combination. All it really knows is that cannot function without Philander, ill or not, and that is not an uncomfortable place to be.
On the third evening South Africa's assistant coach Adrian Birrell was giving de Bruyn a net as the last session was washed out. Birrell estimates that he throws between 50 and 70 overs per practice as he tries to prepare South Africa's batsmen for their time in the middle. That's between 300 and 500 balls. In this Test, only two South Africans faced more than 100 deliveries. You can understand why Birrell may be a little exasperated.
Still, he was in good spirits that evening even though he was obviously concerned with the way the team had performed. His worry was the bowling, Morris in particular, but he still thought South Africa could salvage something. Asked if he was going to be the one talking to the press afterwards, he laughed. "I only talk to the media when we're…. oh yes we are in the shit," he joked. "Anyway, it's not me today."
It was Temba Bavuma who had to explained how, yet again, he had kept his head when all around him others were losing theirs. He did it in his usual calm way and showed no signs of the slightest annoyance. He wasn't getting the support he wanted but he hoped in time it would come.
Twenty-four hours later, Bavuma was in exactly the same situation. He was batting with Dean Elgar, South Africa were in real trouble and it was Birrell's turn to speak.
On his way to the press room, Birrell had walked past Elgar and saw him with one of his fingers in a cup of ice water. Birrell didn't bother to look at which finger or ask how it felt. "Even if its broken, he will bat tomorrow," Birrell said. "It doesn't matter which finger it is."
It wasn't broken, just bruised and Birrell wasn't the only one who took such a casual approach. Asked after the match if he was considering having an x-ray on the finger before the Old Trafford Test Elgar dismissed it as a "waste of money."
He had been hit when bowling - yes, bowling because South Africa had run out of answers - by a Jonny Bairstow straight drive and then hit a few more times while batting but he was battling on. Elgar's technique is not the smoothest, he can flashy outside the off stump and has the Graeme Smith style of slashing balls in an ungainly manner into the leg side. Now he may be starting to emulate Smith's attitude in second-innings situations.
Elgar's hundred at The Oval was only his second in a second innings but both have come in the last nine months. In that time, he has also scored four of his eight hundred. South Africa have only managed 13, and just five by members of the current squad. Stephen Cook and JP Duminy, who are not playing in this series, have two centuries as do Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla has one. That leaves Bavuma as the only member of the top five who has not scored a century but we've already documented the situations he has found himself in. The bottom line is that South Africa don't have enough Dean Elgars.
They don't have enough players who are able to tough it out in what they have all described as some of the most difficult conditions they have had to bat in against a high-quality attack and they have their reasons. Heino Kuhn is in his first series, Amla's form has waned and waxed and waned again, de Kock is an x-factor that may or may not come off at No. 4 and now, South Africa are carrying a long-ish tail. But those reasons just don't seem satisfactory enough to explain why South Africa have only scored two hundreds in their last six Tests, both of them by Elgar.
Du Plessis admitted they are all a little to blame. In this Test, he was one of the worst offenders. Out leaving the ball twice, he acknowledged that, "the first rule of batting is to use the bat," but didn't say whether watching replays of his own dismissals made him feel as ill as Philander felt. That may have because Birrell let out that du Plessis hit the gym, and maybe a few things in it, in frustration shortly after his second innings lbw.
"Bye, bye," the assistant coach cheerfully said as he left the room on the penultimate night of the match, having said the team was "not overly expectant but still had hope" of doing something special to save the game. "I'll see you all when we're in trouble again."
South Africa will hope that's the last time Birrell had to be put in front of the mic.