Close of play report (Day 3): England 362 & 224-8 (Ali 67*, Broad 0*) South Africa 226
Moeen Ali's growing significance in the England set-up was emphasised in the final session at Old Trafford as he quashed any hopes South Africa had of forcing an unlikely victory with a superb counter-attacking innings.
Moeen smashed an 11th Test fifty after his fellow big guns had laboured to press home the advantage England had taken on first innings after leaving their opponents with a 136-run deficit.
The Worcestershire all-rounder, the leading wicket-taker in the series, displayed his considerable prowess with the bat as he took the game to the dangerous Keshav Maharaj in particular. Maharaj, whose reputation grows with almost every viewing, was finding serious turn and bounce from the footholes to discomfort pretty much everyone, but the left-handers certainly.
As one of those left-handers Ali might have been expected to have his problems but he began to use his feet to excellent effect, and sweep and drive impressively. The second of his three sixes off the slow left-armer, over long-on, brought up his his half-century from 49 balls. His aggressive attitude was disrupting the rhythm the South African bowlers had got into and transferring any pressure back on to them.
Ali had entered the fray shortly before tea after Joe Root and Ben Stokes had been dismissed during an impressive and economical spell from Duanne Olivier, who would not have been playing but for injuries to others, and the pace bowler, who equalled his best analysis of three for 38, accounted for a strangely subdued Jonny Bairstow shortly after the break.
Of the four men lost between lunch and tea, the most disappointed will be Keaton Jennings, whose lack of form has surely consigned him to a spell back in the county game. Dawid Malan will be also be looking over his shoulder after a fourth failure, although he will probably be spared for at least the first Test against the West Indies later this month.
Jennings had toiled his way to 17 from 57 balls before lunch and added only a single after it when he cut a ball too close to him from Kagiso Rabada and carved a catch to first slip. It meant he had totalled 128 runs from eight innings in the company of Alastair Cook at the top of the order.
Malan had already been dropped – a difficult chance to Temba Bavua who was unlucky not to take a diving catch as the ball dropped over his shoulder – when he danced down the wicket to Maharaj and edged into his pads. Theunis de Bruyn did the rest at short leg.
Root struggled to get going and with Maharaj continuing to operate over the wicket and floating the ball into the rough outside the right-hander's leg stump, he looked less than happy to have to pad the ball away. Eventually his patience snapped and he resorted to a rare switch hit, which he tried to fetch with the spin from way outside his leg stump – and was lucky not to perish.
When he did depart, one short of a 30th Test fifty, he was defeated by the ball keeping almost immorally low. Olivier continued to frustrate Stokes, who finally edged one for four between slips and gully but was almost immediately dismissed by a bouncier, quicker delivery that found another edge.
Bairstow top edged a hook off the rookie Olivier, playing only his third Test, and was caught at long leg. At that point England were 153 for seven, a lead of 289 – still probably enough to ensure a 3-1 series victory and only five short of the record Test chase on this ground – but South Africa had the momentum and their more optimistic supporters would have been dreaming of the improbable.
But Ali soon extinguished that positivity as he took on Maharaj, Olivier and Rabada and even though he lost the support of an equally adventurous Toby Roland-Jones, by the time rain ended play for the day 45 minutes before the scheduled close, he had progressed to 68 from 59 balls with eight fours and three sixes and the fourth innings target had risen to 360.
Earlier Morne Morkel had dismissed the Essex pair of Cook and Tom Westley in the first session during a fine eight-over spell, both driving to gully. He had taken up the attack after adding only six with Olivier for the last South African wicket. Stuart Broad took that wicket – his third – denying his good friend James Anderson his first five-wicket Test haul at his home ground as Olivier top-edged a pull.
With the pitch still deteriorating, no one will be incredibly surprised it if is Ali who has the final word with the ball as well.
Teatime report: England 362 & 138-6 (Bairstow 0*, Ali 4 *) v South Africa 226
Struggling left-handers Keaton Jennings and Dawid Malan did their Test prospects no good when they fell in the first half-hour after lunch on the third day at Old Trafford. And with England then losing Joe Root and Ben Stokes shortly before tea, England found it progressively harder to press home their advantage, and left South Africa with faint hopes that they could still square the series.
By the interval, England, 136 runs ahead on first innings, had extended their lead to 274, with only four wickets in hand. With the highest score chased down in the fourth innings at Old Trafford, the 294 for four that England managed against New Zealand in 2008, that still ought to be enough to ensure a 3-1 victory; but fine bowling by Keshav Maharaj and Duanne Olivier would have had South Africa's more optimistic supporters dreaming of the improbable.
Root fell a run short of a 30th half-century, chopping on to Olivier. Not that it would have been one of his more eye-catching, occupying 106 balls. That he and Stokes, who subsequently edged the same bowler to slip, struggled to push on indicated how difficult for batting the pitch was becoming.
Of the two men under threat of the axe, Jennings will be the one most in danger after he failed again. His latest innings ws tortuous: he accumulated just 17 runs from 57 balls before lunch and added only a single after the interval, cutting at one too close to him from Kagiso Rabada and carving a chest high catch to Hashim Amla at first slip.
Malan had already been dropped by Temba Bavuma before he advanced down the wicket to Maharaj, and fell victim to a bat-pad chance. He has scored just 35 runs in his four innings to date, though will probably get at least one further chance when the West Indies come to town later in the month.
The future looks much bleaker for Jennings – at least in the short term – after his latest dismissal left him with only128 runs from his eight innings as Alastair Cook's opening partner in this series. It could have been even worse for the Durham left-hander, who was unable to capitalise on being dropped on nought.
He will surely be sent back to county cricket to regain a semblance of form and his likely eviction from the England dressing-room should now open the door for Surrey opener and former Durham team-mate Mark Stoneman, who has been unfortunate to miss out on international recognition so far. It seems improbable that the selectors will expose Haseeb Hameed to the West Indies, even though their attack is nothing like as potent as that of South Africa and the Lancashire opener was seen working in the nets with batting coach Mark Ramprakash earlier in the Test.
Maharaj's reputation, meanwhile, grows with every viewing; Olivier's run of success was less anticipated.
The left-arm spinner began to find plenty of purchase from the footholes outside the left-handers' off stump.and even as attacking batsmen as Root and Stokes did not find progress easy. When he was not padding the ball away outside leg stump the England captain even resorted to a switch hit, which he tried to fetch with the spin from way outside his leg stump – and was lucky not to perish.
When he did depart, it was to one that kept low during an impressively economical spell from Olivier, who frustrated Stokes for two overs before removing him, caught by De Plessis.
Morne Morkel had dismissed the Essex pair of Cook and Tom Westley before lunch, both driving and caught in the gully. Earlier, he and Olivier added only six for the last wicket as South Africa resumed on 220-9. Stuart Broad took his third wicket, denying his good friend James Anderson his first five-wicket Test haul at his home ground as Olivier top-edged a pull.
Lunchtime report England 362 & 53-2 South Africa 226 (Jennings 16* Root 13*)
Keaton Jennings enjoyed a big slice of luck as he sought to save his Test career – at least in the short term – on the third morning at Old Trafford. The Durham left-hander edged Kagiso Rabada to Dean Elgar at third slip before he had scored and – as in the second innings at the Oval – the South Africa opener spilled the chance, this one a difficult one to his left.
South Africa did not have to wait too long for their first wicket, however, as Alastair Cook thick-edged an attempted drive to gully, where Theunis de Bruyn took a catch that was a lot less testing in direction and height. Morne Morkel was the bowler to benefit and it was the third time in as many innings that he had dislodged the former England captain.
Tom Westley soon followed, a mirror image of Cook's dismissal, this time substitute fielder Aiden Markram taking the catch in the gully. It was a poor shot, and particularly disappointing coming as it did on the heels of a lovely drive off the back foot that the Essex batsman controlled beautifully from the top of the bounce.
England had started their second innings with a 136-run advantage after South Africa, 220 for nine overnight, had added only six for their final wicket. Duanne Olivier tried to pull Stuart Broad but succeeded only in getting a top edge and Jonny Bairstow ran 20 yards back to take the chance over his shoulder.
That gave Broad a third wicket for the innings, denying his good friend James Anderson a first five-wicket Test haul at his home ground.
Jennings, who had scored only 109 runs in the series prior to this innings, but had won a vote of confidence from captain Joe Root last week after scoring 48 in the second innings in south London, would have been aware that he really needed a knock of note. It would be natural if that was playing on his mind as he pushed stiffly at a ball outside the off stump and the relief when the ball escaped Elgar's dive must have been immense.
He would have been less concerned when he padded up to Keshav Maharaj as he spun one out of the rough and the slow left-armer persuaded his captain to review the leg-before shout – HawkEye showed the ball to be missing by a significant margin – but he followed up with a reverse sweep for four against the turn. If it was risky in conception, it was perfect in execution and should have given Jennings renewed confidence, although it took him only into double figures from 37 balls faced.
By lunch he had moved on to 17 from 57 balls. Root had made 13 from 44 and England, having made slow progress to 53 for two, were leading by 189.