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Match Analysis

Spin strategy allows game to drift as South Africa lose their grip

Decision not to utilise pace of Rabada and Nortje after lunch highlights failed approach

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Simon Harmer endured a frustrating return to Test whites, England vs South Africa, 2nd Test, Manchester, 2nd day, August 26, 2022

Simon Harmer endured a frustrating return to Test whites  •  AFP

When we remember Test matches, we reminisce about the milestones: the hundreds, the big hauls, and sometimes the one or two magic moments that swing a result one way or the other. We don't often look back on the period of play when 27 runs were scored in 12 overs as a highlight, or even a lowlight. There's nothing lit about it. But it was that seemingly pedestrian period of play that pointed England in the direction of the freeway from where they pulled so far ahead of South Africa that the rest of this match could well be about waiting for the inevitable.
Those 12 overs came after lunch, when South Africa chose to use their two specialist spinners in tandem, a plan they would have wanted to deploy much later in the match. Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer were picked to take advantage of a dry Old Trafford surface with good bounce that was taking turn from the first day and is expected to become more ragged as the match goes on. Essentially, they were there for days four and five and a fourth innings. South Africa's first innings blowout means we're unlikely to see them operate in those conditions and it limited their attacking options on the second day.
After conceding 111 runs overnight, South Africa's early focus was wickets and there's no question who the likeliest to take them were: Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje. Rabada bowled eight overs on day one and resumed on Friday with a delivery that reversed close to Jonny Bairstow's off stump and then drew an edge from Zak Crawley that fell short of second slip. Nortje, who bowled six on the first day, found a leading edge from Crawley, then hit him in the groin and then removed Bairstow (for the fourth time in the 29 balls he has bowled to him in Tests) and Crawley in successive overs to leave England still trailing, with half their line-up dismissed. That gave South Africa a small opportunity to contain England's lead and Nortje recognised it as "the ideal period to get more sticks", but he and Rabada could not continue beyond the 11 overs they bowled upfront.
So, South Africa turned to Harmer, known in England as the best spinner on the county circuit, and with a good set of results at this ground, albeit from a small sample size. Lungi Ngidi was brought on at the other end, to control and allow Harmer to operate aggressively. But it was England who did the attacking. Harmer's first ball was a full toss which Foakes drove through the covers. Three balls later, Stokes slogged Harmer over deep midwicket for six. After five overs where Harmer got some deliveries to swerve and jump but was unable to create any real pressure, Rabada replaced Ngidi at the other end but he also couldn't break through. Then, two overs before lunch Maharaj came on and he and Harmer closed out the session.
England were 61 ahead, at the midpoint between catchable and can't-pull-them-back. The period post-lunch was crucial in determining which direction their innings would take and South Africa allowed England to choose the route. Instead of asking Rabada and Nortje to have a burst, Elgar continued with Maharaj and Harmer. Nortje cautioned not to "look too deeply into who bowled when" because it was "a good wicket to bat on", and there is an argument to be made for keeping the quicks for the second new ball, which was 24 overs away. But with reverse-swing on offer and the knowledge of what Nortje had done, it seemed worth the gamble to use him with the older ball.
That's not to say the spinners had no chances at all. Maharaj found turn that almost bowled Stokes when he missed a reverse-sweep, Harmer also nearly bowled him after England's captain advanced down the track for the second time in an over to attempt to hit him over the top. Stokes missed both times but his intent was clear: pick two spinners and we'll attack them both. Eventually he got into both of them, smacking the 102nd six of his career off Harmer and taking 26 runs off 23 balls from Maharaj.
By the time Nortje was called on, 36 minutes after lunch, England's lead had swelled to 88. That's only 27 runs more than when they took the interval but it wasn't about the number, it was about the way they went about it. In that period, England transferred pressure back on to South Africa and made it Elgar's game to chase. They went on to score 96 runs between lunch and tea and not lose a wicket. Nortje only bowled nine overs in the first two sessions and South Africa were in a position from which a comeback will have to be monumental.
In the end, the spinners did not go completely empty-handed, but South Africa will have to acknowledge that their gamble in picking them has not worked. Harmer got some reward, when Stuart Broad breezed down the track to play another of those shots that look like he is enjoying a late summer holiday at the crease. He might as well have been. England were more than 200 ahead, the Friday afternoon crowd were in full voice and the sun was shining. About half an hour later, Maharaj had Ollie Robinson caught at slip to muted celebrations.
In between that, Stokes sat with his shades on, sipping water from a can, watching Foakes get to his second Test hundred. We won't remember Harmer or Maharaj's wickets but we will remember the satisfied look on Stokes' face. It's what magic Test match moments are made of.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent