England’s Dom Sibley and Ben Stokes help prove the true value of Test cricket - Chris Waters
IT WILL not have escaped your attention that one of the great debates in cricket at present is whether Test matches should be shorn of their fifth day.
The International Cricket Council is to consider a one day reduction in match length as it looks towards the next cycle of games from 2023.
The England and Wales Cricket Board has cautiously welcomed a move ostensibly designed to reduce the workload of international players.
In reality, you do not need to be S. Holmes of 221b Baker Street to deduce that there is a very real fear that this would only lead to more money-spinning white-ball matches being shoved into the schedule to the detriment of Test cricket as opposed to its benefit.
Whichever side of the fence you are on (my own view is that if workload is the real issue, then why not simply reduce the amount of cricket full stop?), the ongoing game in Cape Town would already have finished as a draw.
Granted, it may have been played at a different pace, and with different tactics, but the reality is that going into this particular fifth day, all four results are technically possible as an intriguing fixture builds to its climax.
South Africa are 126-2 in pursuit of a world record Test chase of 438 (barring a miracle, we can safely rule that out), while England need eight wickets to level the series after losing the first Test at Centurion.
Whatever happens, it is another example of Mother Cricket’s capacity for fighting back in a timely way whenever administrators seek to chip away at its history and traditions, which they do a little too often for one’s taste these days.
This has been an excellent Test match so far between two flawed batting line-ups in which England’s have so far shown fewer flaws. Their first innings score of 269 after winning the toss was, by common consent, a squandered opportunity on a good batting surface.
South Africa’s riposte of 223 was another wasted chance.
But no matter how flawed these line-ups, the batsmen are, by the law of averages, going to get it right sometimes and England’s second innings effort of 391-8 declared was a good one.
It was founded on Dominic Sibley’s unbeaten 133, his maiden Test hundred and an archetypal Test opener’s innings in the old-fashioned sense, plus Ben Stokes’s blistering assault of 72 from 47 deliveries, with captain Joe Root chipping in with a measured 61.
Sibley and Stokes’s innings crystallised the variety of Test cricket and the scope for different styles of play within the overall framework.
While Sibley lasted for six hours 17 minutes, Stokes was at the crease for only 75 minutes; the all-rounder actually completed a 34-ball half-century before Sibley advanced from his overnight 85 to three figures.
Stokes’s was the fifth-fastest Test fifty by an England batsman, and not many spectators would have dared to visit the toilet/bar before he was out.
Sibley, on the other hand, would necessitate neither a rush back from the bar nor from the toilet such is the sedate, unspectacular style in which he accumulates, chiselling out his runs with due care and attention.
Editing a highlights reel of the average Sibley innings would involve many laborious hours wading through judicious leaves outside off stump and forward defensive strokes, but he has exactly the sort of patience and determination that England have been crying out for.
The 24-year-old is clearly a popular chap; in addition to the ovation he received from England’s players and supporters at the ground, a delightful clip on social media showed his Warwickshire team-mates celebrating back home as he reached a milestone all batsmen dream of.
Thanks primarily to Stokes, England were able to declare 20 minutes after lunch, which represented positive captaincy from Root as he eschewed any temptation to drag it out and bat on until the lead was 450/500.
Caution is understandable from captains in the firing line in terms of declarations, but too many these days seem to forget that the world record Test chase is 418 – not 518 or 618.
South Africa made a decent fist of trying to go where no team has gone before, losing only two wickets in reply. Joe Denly removed Dean Elgar, and Jimmy Anderson got rid of Zubayr Hamza, both caught behind, with debutant Pieter Malan making a Sibley-esque unbeaten 63.
Elgar departed to what UltraEdge showed was the faintest of murmurs – not even a spike – and he could count himself unlucky.
Faced with such a stiff target, South Africa pretty much needed everything to go their way. That they still have the remotest of remote chances is thanks to the fact that there is a fifth day.