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Match Analysis

South Africa suffer a Bazboozling as defeat comes in fast-forward

Existing frailties combined with bowling aggression create one of the shortest series of all

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Wiaan Mulder chopped on to his stumps during South Africa's collapse at The Oval  •  Getty Images

Wiaan Mulder chopped on to his stumps during South Africa's collapse at The Oval  •  Getty Images

If you blinked, you might really have missed it. Most of the match, that is.
A wicket fell every 4.2 overs in the first three innings at The Oval. That's around once every 20 minutes, and more frequently than has ever happened in a Test anywhere. Even when you factor in England's fourth-innings 130 for 1, the bowling strike-rate of 27.1 still the fastest for this venue. It resulted in the fourth-shortest Test ever staged in England, in terms of number of balls (909), and the shortest in the country in 110 years.
So why so many dismissals, so often?
"We were exposed to the toughest batting conditions throughout this Test where the ball was nipping a lot," Dean Elgar, South Africa's captain, said. "It was up there with really tough conditions, even for myself and I've got a fair amount of experience. I can only imagine how a guy with one or two Tests must feel. It was tough all round."
If that sounds too much like Elgar making an excuse for South Africa's worst batting performance in England since 1912, he's not alone in his assessment. Stuart Broad agreed that the third morning, which turned into the first morning of play, was too "too bowler-friendly", after the pitch spent an extra two days under cover following the first-day wash-out and the suspension of play on the second following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. "It seamed a lot when I first came on as a first-change bowler. I was surprised, it was nipping three or four balls an over," he said.
Broad later went on to confirm he felt pitches at the beginning of the Test summer were flatter than the ones that came later on, despite the heatwave which many (including South Africa's selectors, who picked Simon Harmer ahead of Marco Jansen for the second Test at Old Trafford) expected to cause drier, slower surfaces, and the numbers back him up.
When England hosted New Zealand in June, they successfully chased 279 in the first Test, both sides scored 500 in their first innings in the second and there were three scores above 300 in the third Test. In this series, there was only one score over 400, one more over 300 and teams were bowled out for under 200 seven times. Kagiso Rabada summed that up at the presentations by claiming it proved that "every game was decided from the toss", but it also speaks to the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides.
Both South Africa and England have pace-bowling attacks that are talked about and celebrated as among the best in the world. England have the two leading seam-bowling wicket-takers in Test history in James Anderson and Stuart Broad, and many predict Rabada will become South Africa's most successful. Contrastingly, both South Africa and England have fairly brittle batting, with South Africa's problems well documented and England's top-order still under scrutiny despite Zak Crawley sealing the run-chase with his first half-century of the summer.
What's become clear over the course of the series is that South Africa's line-up is weaker than England's and so, when they are asked to front up first and end up conceding a lead, as was the case in this Test, they are in real danger of falling apart completely. And that's not a new problem. South Africa have had these batting issues for at least the last three years, which has resulting in a regular flow of wickets, and therefore shorter Tests.
Eighteen of the 27 Tests South Africa have played since 2019 have not gone beyond 300 overs, which means that - two-thirds of the time - their matches are barely going beyond three days. In the past 15 months, South African batters have faced, on average, 51 balls per dismissal. In that same time period, only Bangladesh have faced fewer balls - 50.4. England are third on the list, at 52.1 balls per dismissal, which explains the fast-forward nature of the series. Across the three matches, bowlers in this series had the third-best strike-rate in any series of three or matches, and the best since 1896. All told, a wicket fell every 6.2 overs. If that's not a bazboozling, we don't know what is.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent