The fast and furious rock Bullring
The Wanderers has been the stage for some epic encounters in the 25 years since South Africa’s readmission, and expectations of another memorable contest were as high as ever heading into the third Test match between the Proteas and England that started on Thursday.
New captain AB de Villiers insisted that he, like predecessor Hashim Amla last week, would lead by example but also admitted that he was a “more energetic person” and hoped that would rub off on the team in the field.
“If I score the runs and throw myself about in the field, then I believe the team will follow,” De Villiers said before a match that the hosts must win to level the series before the fourth and final Test in Centurion next week.
South Africa haven’t played a Test match at the Wanderers for two years but the last one was a thriller, with centuries from De Villiers and Faf du Plessis, leading a fourth-innings charge to 450-7 in pursuit of 458 to beat India. The match was drawn, denying the Proteas the record for the highest run chase in Test history.
The head groundsman, Bethuel Buthelezi, in his first season in charge after an apprenticeship spanning a quarter of a century under Chris Scott, promised something for everyone before this week’s match – seam movement, plenty of runs and spin later in the match. He was even happy to promise a positive result, unlike last week’s high-scoring draw at Newlands in Cape Town.
The Proteas have won two of the four Tests against England since 1995 when they were thwarted by Michael Atherton’s career-defining, 10-hour vigil of 185 not out, which forced a famous draw. Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock reduced the tourists to 2/4 after 20 minutes of the 1999 Test and shared an astonishing 19 of the 20 wickets during an emphatic innings and 21-run win.
Dale Steyn and Morné Morkel took seven wickets apiece during another innings victory in 2010, but swing bowler Matthew Hoggard produced a stunning, career-best performance of 7-61 to seal a famous final-day win in 2005.
Plenty of batsmen have enjoyed the pace and bounce at the “Bullring” but it is the fast bowlers who have played the lead role in winning Test matches, and it is for that reason the Proteas gambled on omitting specialist spinner Dane Piedt in favour of a four-man pace attack.
England also boast a four-man pace attack and, in the absence of Steyn and Vernon Philander, a far more experienced and successful one, with the new-ball pairing of James Anderson and Stuart Broad boasting an astonishing 750 Test wickets between them.
Steve Finn may be the “form” fast bowler in the world at the moment and all-rounder Ben Stokes is the man in the spotlight after his record-breaking innings of 258 at Newlands.
This may be a must-win game for the home side, but that does not make them the favourites. In fact, far from it.