England went through the South African tail fairly quickly to have the home team 138-9 until a boundary-filled last-wicket partnership of 99 between Keshav Maharaj and Dane Paterson held up the victory charge.
It was temporary frustration for England. Maharaj was run out for 71 with a direct hit from Sam Curran just before lunch to confirm England's big victory and its first by an innings overseas in nearly a decade.
While the series is still in the balance, the third test never really was. England made 499-9 declared batting first with 135 not out by youngster Ollie Pope and 120 from inspirational allrounder Ben Stokes, and was in control from early on.
The England bowlers, with seamers and spinners working in unison, bowled South Africa out for 209 and 237. “I though it was a brilliant template for us moving forward as a team,” England captain Joe Root said. “Big first-innings runs and then we really drove the game from that point onwards.”
Even with South Africa's last stand, the scale of England's victory was still stark. The tourists now need to add the finishing touch in the last test in Johannesburg. A draw there will be enough for a landmark series victory away from home for Root's young team, half of which are under 25. The way the series has spun around, England expects more than a draw to finish off.
There were positives everywhere in Port Elizabeth for England, including the emergence of a young crop, with Pope and offspinner Dom Bess, both only 22, the standouts at St. George's Park. Pope played superbly for his maiden test century and Bess took 5-51 in South Africa's first innings, the first five wickets of the innings and his first five-wicket haul in tests.
“Seeing another two youngsters really step up to the plate and make massive contributions is exactly what we’re after,” Root said. There was also the return from injury of fast bowler Mark Wood, who was fearsome at times and clocking speeds of 90 mph (145 kph) on a slow pitch. He took 3-32 in the South African second innings in his first test in nearly a year.
Stokes, the world cricketer of the year, continues to be the driving force for England. There's been no drop in his incredible level of performance. The overall effect is that Root's test team has learned to win again having gone through a lean 2019, when the English lost in West Indies and New Zealand and failed to win back the Ashes at home.
South Africa is staring at a third straight series defeat and second straight at home. Maharaj's flamboyance and free-hitting half-century on Monday won't distract from the deep problems. He hit 10 fours and three sixes with South Africa on the brink of one of its most morale-sapping defeats. Maharaj, in the team for his spin bowling, launched three fours and two sixes off Root in one over. The last ball went for four leg byes and those 28 runs equaled the world record for number of runs in a test over.
It was a strange record amid England's dominance. No. 11 Paterson clubbed six fours in his 39 off 40 balls. But England confirmed what everyone knew when Maharaj tried a quick single with South Africa in sight of making it to the lunch break. Curran, who had also come in for some punishment from Maharaj when bowling at the other end, threw down the stumps from mid-on.
South Africa can still save the series at the Wanderers but will have to do it without leading fast bowler Kagiso Rabada, who is banned, and with its coach, captain and under-performing batting lineup under severe pressure.
South Africa has to make at least one change to replace Rabada but could be forced into a much larger re-think of its team, and especially the inexperienced batting order. There are suggestions at home that the Proteas are facing their toughest time in recent memory.
Captain Faf du Plessis dismissed rumors he would retire from tests during this series. Instead, that decision is likely to come later in the year. But he accepted how serious the problems were. “It’s a tough time but there’s no running away from it, there’s no escape,” du Plessis said. “I’m the leader of the team.”
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