Match Analysis

One good morning can't erase four bad ones

South Africa batting too late as Maharaj and Paterson play with freedom of men who have everything to gain

At 11am on the fifth morning of this Test, while the rest of Port Elizabeth's day had just begun, St George's Park was preparing for the end. The band let out a mournful version of Happy Birthday, the afternoon forecasts were being consulted to see if an excursion to the beach was possible and the fridge in the press box was being stocked with post-play beers, at a record early hour.
The 50 minutes that followed were out of a fantasy game. Keshav Maharaj and Dane Paterson played with the freedom of men with everything to gain and shared South Africa's highest partnership of the match. Sure, Joe Root was searching for his first international five-for and everybody knew what was going to happen anyway. And it did.
South Africa duly lost by an innings for only the fourth time at home since readmission. Though the tailenders and the English captain ensured that the margin of this defeat was smaller than the other three, it could easily be argued that the problems are bigger. Against Australia in 1997 and 2002, South Africa could explain their heavy defeats by virtue of the strength of the opposition (Australia were undisputedly the best team in the world).
Against England in 2009, South Africa could explain it by the strength of the English attack with a young James Anderson and Stuart Broad and the challenges of their own, which was carrying an aging quick in Makhaya Ntini and an unsettled top-order, where Ashwell Prince had been recalled as an opener. That doesn't sound all that different to the situation now, where Vernon Philander all but ghosted his way through this Test (he delivered just 16 of the 152 overs South Africa bowled) and the top-order crumbled, but that's only half of it. The rest of South Africa's attack also lack efficacy and the inconsistencies in the line-up have trolled the team for three summers, after spicy pitches at home robbed them of the chance to find form and a tour to India dismantled their confidence.
Ultimately, what Maharaj and Paterson showed was that their one semi-decent morning came too later after four disastrous ones, which collectively lost them the game. Instructed to field first after losing the toss, a pedestrian effort from South Africa's quicks saw England stroll to 61 without loss at lunch on the first day, which doesn't sound like much but it laid the foundation for what came on the second morning.
England scored 111 runs to take their total from iffy to imposing. Ben Stokes plundered 70 runs and Ollie Pope 36 in that time, and England eventually declared on 499. Then came the third morning when South Africa lost 53 for 3 in the morning session, to tumble to 113 for 5 in their first innings, and put themselves in danger of a follow-on. It was enforced on the fourth morning after a horrible half an hour, when South Africa lost 4 for 1.
If you compare the first two days to the third and fourth, you will know that South Africa's morning can't be explained by the pitch. There was nothing in it, apart from some turn. It was the perfect pitch for struggling players to find success but South Africa performed worse here than they did at Newlands, where there was fight, if not great form. Here, the technical and mental deficiencies were highlighted, especially because England's were so enhanced.
"England showed us how to apply yourself, how to get yourself in and how to score big runs. That's the only difference between the two teams," Faf du Plessis said.
Essentially, du Plessis is right. England's batsmen used the first day to get themselves in. They watched, they waited, they defended. It was, as du Plessis said, "boring", but necessary to set the situation up for Stokes and Pope. South Africa did not do that at all. When "their Stokes", Quinton de Kock, walked in they were 71 for 4 and 66 for 4 in either innings, leaving him with a tricky dual job of prolonging the innings and progressing it before the tail was properly exposed.
That de Kock needs to evolve his game was discussed on these pages and du Plessis agreed. "What you can see from Ben Stokes is that he has matured his game so that he has different gears. There is learning for Quinny in that," du Plessis said.
More crucial is that South Africa's top order emulate England's, which they have not done for several matches. "Our responsibility as the top five is to lay the foundation for players like that to come in with freedom," du Plessis said. "The England top three does a very boring job, in a way, but they do a good job. They make sure they take care of the new ball, they are very set in their game plans but it works for them.
"Then Root comes in and plays with a little more freedom, Stokes comes in and plays with more freedom but you can only do that if you set it up for the rest of your batting line-up. Quinton will be at his best when we can set it up for him."
For that to happen, the first thing South Africa's line-up needs to do is tighten their defences. "What we need to do better is understand application at the crease in the first 30 or 40 balls, you need to make sure you trust your defence. What we are doing is losing wickets in clusters. That's always a big sin in any format," du Plessis said.
Then, they have to figure out how to approach spin. This is a conundrum South Africa have been unable to solve for years, and which has worsened from recent trips to the subcontinent, where they have been whitewashed in their last two series and failed to win any of their last 10 Tests. Now, the problem has migrated home and South Africa are unsure whether to take on visiting spinners or block them out.
"In the first innings, you can play positively and try and take him on because that's how you play a spinner, you try and put pressure back on him. That's what I try and do," du Plessis said. "That's how I got out, trying to play positively. You try and do it the other way round and then you do it the other way round and people say you should play positively. You have to find a way."
Du Plessis called South Africa's efforts "weak," against Dominic Bess, who will no doubt be the focus of their preparations for the fourth Test.
At 11.50am, with the working week in full swing, the Barmy Army took over from the band, the birthday crew departed and the first beers were opened (disclaimer: not by this writer). The chance for South Africa to win the series was gone and their attention has to turn to saving it. They can do that by batting better later this week.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent