England are hoping to sign off an unforgettable 2019 with another improbable chase after Rory Burns gave them a promising start pursuing a record 376 against South Africa.
Presented with a target that even dwarfed the 359 Ben Stokes hauled in during his Ashes miracle at Headingley in August, Burns’ focused 77 not out steered England to 121 for one at stumps on day three of the Boxing Day Test.
The tourists looked out on their feet after two dreadful sessions in which they allowed South Africa to pile on 200 runs for their last six wickets, with illness once again causing major disruption.
Captain Joe Root and wicketkeeper Jos Buttler were both laid low by the sickness bug which has now hit 10 squad members and four backroom staff, and their readiness to perform to their best in what promises to be an intriguing fourth day must be uncertain.
The evening session at SuperSport Park saw England progress methodically as Burns, dropped by Rassie Van der Dussen on 20, forced doubt into the minds of a South African team who nevertheless have 254 runs to play with when the battle resumes.
Tweet of the day
“A very human chill trickles down the South African cricketing back… England look comfortable, the pitch is behaving and the swing is no more. All the African time in the world. They wouldn’t, would they? #SAvENG” – South African journalist Lungani Zama during the opening stand between Dom Sibley and Burns.
No imminent wedding bells for Markram
South Africa opener Aiden Markram was ruled out for the remainder of the series after medics decided he needed surgery to fix a fracture in the ring finger of his left hand. A source close to the Proteas who had seen the disfigured digit was overheard musing on an unintended consequence of the problem, saying: “He won’t be getting married any time soon.”
Ben Stokes used a television interview with Sky TV before play to show his gratitude to those who had supported his family since his father Ged was admitted to hospital in Johannesburg on December 23. As well as giving praise to the medical staff who had helped treat him and stabilise his condition, the England all-rounder also revealed South Africa head coach Mark Boucher and director of cricket Graeme Smith had offered their thoughts and assistance.
Jofra Archer took his third five-wicket haul in seven Test appearances as England finally ended South Africa’s second innings. More surprising was the number in the ‘runs against’ column, with the Proteas taking him for 102 in just 17 overs. That works out to an economy rate of exactly six – unusually high given that he has only once before gone at more than four an over.
England have not had an opening stand of 100 since Sir Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings put on 103 in Mumbai 68 innings ago in 2016.
Surely day four will see an end to this match, one way or the other. England have a sound start and batting power to come, but the weight of history still lies with the hosts.