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Match Analysis

Familiar story for South Africa's batters, but extraordinary circumstances deserve some understanding

Visitors can relate to how galvanised England felt on emotionally charged day

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
An error in judgement left Keegan Peterson's stumps in a mess  •  Getty Images

An error in judgement left Keegan Peterson's stumps in a mess  •  Getty Images

There isn't that much more to say about South Africa's batting. They produced a repeat of Manchester, but the knock-off version, putting in their worst batting performance in England since 1912. But instead of being angry, maybe we should be understanding. If there's ever been a day for a little softness, today's it.
Not a person watching this morning's commemorative events to celebrate the life of the late Queen Elizabeth II would have been unmoved by the hush over the ground during the minute's silence, broken by a single bell chime and followed by a powerful, poignant delivery of the national anthems. Laura Wright sang "Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika" with no instrumental accompaniments and hit every note to perfection. She was then joined by the almost-capacity crowd for the first rendition of "God Save the King" at a sporting event since 1952, likely the first in many of their lifetimes. The words echoed and floated and bounced through the air, each one reminding us that this is one of those days we will talk about and say, "I was there".
For England, it must have been galvanising. A nation united, is how some newsreaders have described it. South Africans know what that feels like. We've never had a monarch but we had what former president Jacob Zuma called, the "king of kings", the father of our nation, Nelson Mandela, who died during a visit by India in 2013. That day, South Africa had won the first ODI and that night, we danced in the streets and in the pouring rain. For weeks afterwards we celebrated the man who freed us while on the field, the show went on. South Africa went on to win the ODI series and the Test rubber that followed. Now, on the other side of the coin, perhaps they were a little overwhelmed.
Barely 24 hours before play began, the Test was on the verge of not happening, and 24 hours before that, a toss had taken place in anticipation of a decider that carried the weight of what Dean Elgar called a, "World Cup final". Then, there was the uncertainty of it actually happening, the discussion of an extension, which was considered and ultimately refused by South Africa, and there must also have been a realisation that England, in their current mindset, would play at a pace to force a result inside three days (not that that hasn't already happened twice in this series). Knowing that they would have to bat first, in bowler-friendly conditions, with an inexperienced line-up in front of an emotionally charged crowd, must have left South Africa jittery.
No team likes to make excuses, and South Africa didn't, with batting coach Justin Sammons only describing it as an "extraordinary" day and praising England's pinpoint attack. "The reality is that we've got to give the opposition credit. They bowled really, really well," he said. "They got the ball in the right area 80 percent of the time and continually asked questions of us. We didn't give our wickets away through mental errors. It was execution."
Facing Ollie Robinson, in particular, who targeted the area outside the off stump and got the ball to move, has proven beyond most of the South African batters. Sammons put that down to inexperience and he has a point. Only one of South Africa's top eight - Dean Elgar - had played a Test in England before this tour and while Elgar is within sight of 5,000 Test runs, (he is currently 66 runs away) South Africa's next most experienced batter is their No.9, Keshav Maharaj, who is also the only other player in the line-up with 1,000 Test runs. Kagiso Rabada is next with 827.
Comparatively, five of South Africa's top six had collectively scored 1,387 Test runs before this Test, and had 33 caps between them. South Africa have missed Temba Bavuma's 51 Tests and average of over 40 in the last two years, but they have also struggled because players like Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen were out of form before they were dropped and injured respectively, and they've had to make big changes as a result.
Ordinarily, bringing in a player like Ryan Rickelton, who moves his feet well and has a convincing shuffle across, or Khaya Zondo, who held his own in defence and showed some aggression against the spinner, would have been about blooding them in the side. But on this tour, it's been about hoping they can bring some redemption, which is not entirely fair on two newcomers.
Ideally, the pair would be cushioned by players who are experienced and in form, and allowed time to settle. In this match, they are batting in a brittle line-up, which may ultimately mask their potential to be good Test batters. The same may apply to Keegan Petersen, who scored three half-centuries in four innings against India but has managed just 99 runs in the same number of knocks here. He has been uncertain outside the off stump, nicked off three times and was then bowled leaving today. A lot is expected of Petersen but he is currently making just his tenth Test appearance
With so many struggling batters, the sum of South Africa's parts is low, which Sammons recognises as their biggest issue. "What we've been missing is partnerships. Big partnerships. A hundred-plus partnership," he said. "For that to happen, individuals have to make their starts count. That hasn't happened on this tour."
South Africa have not had a century stand across the three Tests, just three half-century partnerships at Lord's and one at Old Trafford. At the Oval, so far, their highest is 36. The lack of application may cause people to question why they did not "pick up a bat once", in Petersen's words, in the six-day break they had between the end of the Manchester Test and the resumption of their training last Saturday for this one. It may even extend to asking why they didn't have a tour match in that time, albeit they lost by an innings in their warm-up against England Lions before the Lord's Test, and still went on to win that game by an innings themselves. The grim reality is that a few extra net sessions or a warm-up match here or there is unlikely to result in South Africa making any major improvements.
Those will only come when the current batters have had time in the international game, either to work out what they need to do to step up or to realise they can't. But the deeper and darker truth is that there isn't really anyone to replace them with, because the pipeline is not being primed for that. The decrease in South Africa's domestic fixtures (from 10 matches a season to seven), the scant availability of top bowlers in those matches and the inevitable squeezing of the four-day game into the season's margins, which will come when the SA20 launches next year, are all going to make it more difficult to find batters who can apply themselves for long periods of time against top-class attacks.
On that point, Sammons wasn't sure where to lay the blame. "There's a massive difference in any first class set-up around the world compared to Test cricket," he said. "You are going to be tested in Test cricket in different ways than you are domestically. Even guys who have played 100 Tests are trying to improve."
That may well be true, but those guys are improving from a much higher base than South Africa's current line-up. Instead, all he can do is try to create some kind of foundation for South Africa to work off, while acknowledging that it is not yielding the desired results. "The guys are putting in a lot of work behind the scenes and we own that we haven't been good enough," Sammons said. "But we are working hard. That is a fact. I am positive that, sooner rather than later, we will start reaping those rewards."
But will that be too late to challenge in this series?

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent