Proteas dare to dream as England eye victory at Newlands

Can South Africa produce a fourth innings rearguard effort that will go down in history? The brain says no, but the heart will say, why not?

South Africa's Dean Elgar (C) plays a shot delivered by England's Stuart Broad (top L) during the fourth day of the second Test match between South Africa and England at Newlands Stadium in Cape Town on 6 January 2020. Picture: AFP

Perhaps there’s comfort in knowing everyone expects England to win on Tuesday. It’s glaringly obvious no matter which way you look at it. England have been the better team by some distance and we can expect Messrs Anderson, Broad, Curran, and Stokes to pick up the necessary 8 wickets and move to Port Elizabeth having levelled the series. The script is predictable for Day 5 of this second Test match (a day in Test cricket which may soon become extinct if the powers have their way).

Over time, fourth innings rearguard efforts become the stuff of legend, stories served with a twinge of nostalgia and talked about by cricket lovers the world over. They still talk about Michael Atherton and Jack Russell in Johannesburg 1995, when the England captain stood firm against the wrath of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, and the contortions of Paul Adams. How he batted for 11 hours to make 185 in 492 balls, and how Jack Russell annoyingly made 29 not out in 235 balls. Attrition was fashionable back then and Test cricket is defined by such heroics.

They will also talk about Faf du Plessis in Adelaide 2012 on Test debut, making 110 not out to save the Test match from the grasp of the Aussies.

If Du Plessis could listen to his 2012 self he’d hear the words, “Let's try and get to drinks.' And then when we got there, we said, 'Let's get to the end of play.' If you break it down to an hour, it helps.”

If you believe in magical numbers in cricket, you may recognise the number 4-3-8. It’s the world record one-day international total South Africa made to beat Australia in 2006 at the Wanderers. A day now consigned to the compendium of unbelievable fightbacks.

Faced with an impossible task, the Proteas need some of that 2006 magic to have any hope in this match. But it’s a completely different game, and history is against them in this Test. The highest fourth-innings run chase for victory was 418 by the West Indies to beat Australia in 2003. South Africa will have to break that record to win here. On a slow Newlands wicket that’s likely to break up further into the day, it seems an impossible assignment.

South Africa have at least two members of that victorious 2006 team in their changeroom – batting coach Jacques Kallis and head coach Mark Boucher, who hit the winning runs on that historic day. Their boss is now Graeme Smith who captained them that day and led from the front with a magnificent 90. The trio will be there today to remind the current crop that it’s OK to play with freedom, even when there’s virtually no one who thinks they can do it.

It may seem nonsensical to clutch at such romantic notions in 2020, when experience has taught us that greatness chooses its own moment, and it can never be predicted ahead of time.

Kallis is hoping that something special does happen like it did on 12 March 2006.

“It’s an opportunity for guys to put their hands up and become heroes,” Kallis said. “It's in situations like this where you see what guys are made of and how good they are and how far we can go. No matter what happens, the team will learn a lot from this game and that's exciting, especially with this young batting line-up that we've got.”

It will be attritional at Newlands. It will be tense and at times pedestrian. Survival is the name of the game for the Proteas, but is there space to dream the impossible?