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Beware the third session at Centurion

Jason Holder was hopeful that the pitch would play its part in a drama for the ages

Gerald Coetzee hadn’t been a Test player for even 30 seconds when he wandered into trouble. The fall of South Africa’s eighth wicket in Centurion on Tuesday brought him to the crease. But before he could arrive in the middle he was accosted by Keshav Maharaj, who was on the field in a day-glow bib attending to something Marco Jansen needed.

From afar the slight, shortish Maharaj might look timid. Closer to the truth is that he is South Africa’s chief whip, a vocal, respected authority inside the dressing room and out. So when Coetzee walked up with his shirt untucked, Maharaj, a veteran of 48 Tests who isn’t part of this XI, wasn’t having it. He stopped the debutant in his tracks and proceeded to shove his shirt into his whites.

Having satisfied the dress code for entry to the highest level, Coetzee punched the first two balls he faced, bowled by Jason Holder, through mid-off for four. Coetzee dealt ably with two more deliveries before bad light forced the close, and Jansen drove Alzarri Joseph’s first legal ball of Wednesday’s play – his initial offering was wided for height, impressive considering Jansen is 2.09 metres tall – for another boundary.

It took West Indies 27 deliveries to snuff out the innings for 342. Joseph jammed Coetzee with a short delivery, which flew off the gloves to second slip, and produced another short delivery to remove Anrich Nortje by way of a crossbatted blooper to gully. Joseph already had his best figures when he claimed he dismissed Coetzee, and his 5-81 was his first five-wicket haul in his 27th Test.

South Africa ended West Indies’ reply 130 runs short of parity 45 minutes before stumps, with Nortje threatening to set his moustache on fire in a hostile last spell of 4 for 7 in five overs to finish with 5-36. Raymon Reifer’s 62, a labour of 143 balls and more than three-and-a-half hours, was part of stands of 36 with Tagenarine Chanderpaul, 64 with Jermaine Blackwood and 47 with Roston Chase. None of their other partnerships survived past 11.

By the close, the home side had built their lead to 179. But they had lost Dean Elgar, Tony de Zorzi, Temba Bavuma and Keegan Petersen. Bavuma became the only South Africa captain except AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis to suffer a pair in his first Test as captain, all at this ground.

Holder ended the day’s play with his first delivery of South Africa’s second innings, an inswinger that trapped Petersen in front. That made Holder the only West Indies player after Garfield Sobers to claim 150 wickets and score 2,500 runs.

Much will depend, for both teams, how Aiden Markram fares on Thursday. He scored 115 in the first innings, and looked like he was batting in a different match on a different pitch and against different opponents for his 33-ball 35 not out, 24 of them stroked in boundaries.

If you’re looking for a thread of cohesion to pull from all that, consider this: 18 of the 24 wickets to fall have gone down in the third session. The first two sessions have yielded just six wickets. That’s 75% of the wickets falling in a third of a match in which the runs have been more or less evenly spread between the sessions. Why is that happening?

“In general a lot of wickets fall later in the day here,” Nortje said. “It could be because of the sun and more things happening in the pitch. It seems to be a regular occurrence here. I don’t have any explanation, really, but you could see the ball misbehaving here and there. That could be contributing to it.”

Holder also had a go: “There’s variable bounce, which is a contributing factor. When batters got stuck in they really applied themselves. But I don’t think it’s a surface where, even if you bat for a lengthy time, you’re ever in. You’ve got to watch every delivery closely and try to play as late as possible.”

So how did Holder explain the freewheeling Markram? “He’s well-balanced, and he’s really moving well. That’s the key to batting on any surface. He’s pretty poised at the crease. He looks like he has more time than anybody else.”

A counterintuitive subplot is that the match is being played on one of the better batting surfaces seen in South Africa in years. Some of the pitches prepared for the South Africans’ series in India in November 2015 – particularly the pitch in Nagpur, which was rated poor by the ICC – led to a backlash that started with the Wanderers Test against India in January 2018, in which play was temporarily suspended because there were concerns the pitch was dangerous.

Twenty-one Tests have been played in South Africa from that match. Of the 33 completed innings, seven have produced totals of less than 200 and 16 of under 300. That equates to almost 70% of sub-300 innings. The average runs per wicket in South Africa in that time is 26.68. Only in the Caribbean, where the same number of Tests have been played during that period, has it been lower: 26.37. But all 21 games have been won and lost in South Africa, compared to the five draws in West Indies.

So Holder was hopeful that the pitch would play its part in a drama for the ages: “This game has created a really good challenge for us. When you look at the last game between England and New Zealand and the way that finished, this could easily be set up for that. But we’ve still got to go and play the cricket. South Africa are a little bit in front of us but the game is not far beyond us.”

New Zealand beat England by one run at the Basin Reserve on Tuesday, only the second time that a Test has been decided by a margin that narrow. Plenty will have to happen if Centurion is to deliver a sequel, especially as the protagonists could not, under any circumstances, be accused of playing Bazball.

But Holder is correct in saying the sides could have a proper contest on their hands. It is possible, after all, to play proper cricket on a proper pitch even as you maintain old-fashioned virtues like tucking in your shirt.

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