An unbeaten 82-run partnership between Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor set up a tantalising final day in Dunedin, in which all four results remain possible. South Africa need eight wickets to take the series lead, while New Zealand require another 264 runs to complete their highest successful fourth-innings chase. Rain forecast for tomorrow however, may prevent a result.
McCullum and Taylor were positive through their association, especially harsh on width outside the off stump from South Africa’s fast bowlers. A mid-session flurry in the evening even produced 40 runs from 31 deliveries, as the pair smacked five fours and a six, making it clear New Zealand were not simply chasing a draw. Although the pitch had become considerably slower and lower over the past two days, a lack of marked increase in turn for Imran Tahir will bolster hopes of an unlikely upset. The possibility was not lost on Graeme Smith, who stationed men on the offside fence towards the end of the day.
The two batsmen had put on a promising partnership in the first innings, only to throw their wickets away when New Zealand seemed headed for a significant first innings lead. But on the fourth evening, false shots were rare. Jacques Kallis had Ross Taylor slashing at one too close to his body, late in the day, but apart from that solitary misjudgment, only the truly loose deliveries were attacked. A languid cover drive by Taylor relied more on timing than his characteristic power to reach the fence, while McCullum’s innings displayed a keen awareness of the field, which he sought to manipulate. It has not always been the case for him, even at times during this tour. He was unbeaten on 58, when the umpires called it a day, due to bad light, with Taylor two short of his fifty.
The chase was set up by Jacques Rudolph, who became South Africa’s third centurion in their second innings, with an unbeaten 105, embellishing an impressive record in New Zealand, where he now boasts an average of 98.6. South Africa had moved slowly in the first session of the day, largely unwilling to take risks to spur an ambling run rate, but alongside Mark Boucher, Rudolph quickened the tempo after lunch, and South Africa declared with a lead of 400 midway through the afternoon session. He had taken 140 deliveries for his 59 at the end of the first session, but needed only 35 more to move to triple figures, shortly before Smith motioned the innings closed.
Eighty-nine overs in the field on day three had seemingly sapped the New Zealand attack, as their opening forays on day four lacked pace and penetration, while South Africa progressed slowly to a hefty lead. Chris Martin was negotiated without fuss by South Africa’s overnight pair – much as he had been throughout several toothless spells the previous afternoon – and though Doug Bracewell coaxed modest nip from a placid surface, his first spell found chiefly the middle of Kallis’ blade, when the batsman resumed an unhurried innings on 107.
Trent Boult drew the unenviable task of bowling into a strong, chilling wind, but it turned out a blessing when Kallis misjudged the pace of the third ball in Boult’s first over. Expecting the ball to arrive much quicker, Kallis was through a clip off the pads, and ended up scooping it in the air to Rob Nicol at midwicket.
Despite that early breakthrough, New Zealand were unable to build pressure as South Africa ambled on comfortably via risk-averse accumulation. The run-rate rarely stirred above three an over, and when AB de Villiers sought to raise it, he found McCullum at deep midwicket with his first truly expansive stroke.
The declaration prior to tea gave South Africa enough time to prise the first New Zealand wicket before the break, when Martin Guptill fell prey to Vernon Philander, who induced bounce and slight movement off the seam to take Guptill’s edge on 6.
Dale Steyn was down on pace throughout his spells in the second innings, perhaps hampered by a swollen big toe on his landing foot. Morne Morkel threatened with the new ball, hitting Nicol on the shoulder and the wrist in his first spell, but had his natural bounce hamstrung by an aging pitch playing lower as the match wore on.
Tahir could not generate the turn he might have hoped for, but was handed a wicket nonetheless – off the worst ball he bowled in the innings. Nicol’s surrender was perhaps the most mindless dismissal of the summer, when he slapped a knee-high full toss to Smith at mid-on. The batsman cringed regretfully almost as soon as he played the stroke, but South Africa were gleeful at the bonus – Tahir barely able to believe his luck, or the folly of a batsman who had scraped through another testing new-ball period from the seamers.
McCullum’s fluency was immediate though, as he hit boundaries from each of the first two overs he faced. New Zealand will rest their hopes with him and Taylor, when the pair resume tomorrow, if the weather allows it.