There was a point in the afternoon session, as Keshav Maharaj went over the wicket to England’s newly right-hand dominant top order, that things felt oddly serene.
The Newlands crowd had settled into a post-lunch calm as the mist drifted down from Table Mountain threatening to blanket them into a slumber. The cricket was coaxing them that way, too, breaking silences like a fan offering comforting white noise with its hum. Active and passive, all at the same time.
In the hour after lunch, Dom Sibley and Joe Denly scored just 29 runs. England had entered into the session on 52 for one, a lead of 98 having made light work of South Africa’s final two batsmen to dismiss them outright for 223.
James Anderson, the architect of both, thus became the first English cricketer over the age of 37 to take a Test five-wicket haul since 1951. That particular column now reads 27, one ahead of Ian Botham’s 26. And his reward, beyond the accolades that will be sent his way and his rather astonishing 582 career dismissals, was this session. One which saw him with his feet up and England, slowly but surely, moving to their first victory at this venue since 1957.
These are the types of sessions England want to see more of, ones where their bowlers can take rest while the opposition’s are forced into the kind of graft that make the five-wicket hauls that much sweeter. It saps their batsmen, too. The 28 overs went for just 57, and while it did not move the match along, it set-up an evening session that added 109 runs from tea to sleep on a lead of 264, a simple 46th half-century for Joe Root and the opportunity for Sibley, unbeaten on 85, to turn a maiden half-century into a full one.
Perhaps the most encouraging trait from Sibley to emerge from this seventh Test innings was how comfortable he felt padding up to Maharaj as the left-arm spinner continued to pitch deliveries outside leg stump. Both parties did their best to out-bore each other. More mouse-and-mouse than cat-and-mouse. Sibley, by still being there, won out and that patience displayed is no surprise. His 1,428 first class runs in the 2019 summer were about facing more balls and spending more time in the middle than anyone else.
Throughout his club and county career, at Surrey and then Warwickshire, he was never known as a prolific shot-maker, or a particularly pretty one. His is a technique only a mother could love, an untraditional beauty that would probably be best off using group photos on Tinder.
But it is a method that absorbs and redistributes energy: around the corner to fine leg (his most productive shot, bringing him 22 runs so far) emphatically through midwicket and, ultimate, to his teammates down the order who will arrive to a healthy platform, weary bowlers and a chance to enjoy themselves.
He reached 50 from 180 balls and, to his credit, was able to hurry on to add 35 in the 42 more he faced to stumps without seemingly doing anything differently. The only indication of acceleration were his increase in off-side runs, making up 43 of the 85 by his name. And with news that Rory Burns is to see a specialist to determine whether he needs surgery on the damaged ligaments in his left ankle that saw him return home on day one of this match and potentially missing the coming tour to Sri Lanka , Sibley taking on the responsibility to be the senior of two junior openers alongside Zak Crawley playing only his second Test, offered relief.
Yet on a day which England have totally dominated, there was one blemish which, over time, will reveal itself to a transitional moment.
On 31, enticed by a sharp short delivery from Anrich Nortje, Denly went to his pull shot. Normally so trustworthy, this attempt lacked control, sending the ball soaring high and down to fine leg where Dwayne Pretorious was able to continue this match’s theme of remarkable catches. England had just ticked over to 101 for one on a misfield, into a lead of 147 as South Africa started fraying at the seams. A demoralised field and an older ball – the perfect time to indulge batting’s most selfish of selfless pursuits: fill your boots for personal glory with the handy excuse of doing it for the team. Sibley got his at the first attempt. Denly, yet again, did not.
For better and worse, it was an innings that encapsulates what Denly brings. Overdue security at first-drop that allows Root to bat at four. A guarantee of crease occupation – this was the eighth time in 12 knocks that Denly has ticked over 100 balls – and runs, but only 31 of them, which is also now is career average from 12 Tests.
His hard work was slightly different to Sibley’s, more aesthetic and equally effective. He was the first to use his feet to Maharaj and hit him down the ground, forcing the spinner to go around the wicket to stem a prospective flow. But, yet again, it was another start he failed to maximise and it was made to look worse by Sibley cracking on, even if Root, too, could only convert to 61.
There are no questions on Denly’s position in this XI, and growing admiration for how he has found a way in each of the four roles given to him. But today gave us a glimpse of a future where England as a sustainable Test side will have outgrown Denly. And the bittersweet thing for him will be that he would have played a key role in getting them to that point.