Tom Curran holds nerve at death as England square series in two-run thrillerby Andrew Miller
England 204 for 7 (Stokes 47, Roy 40, Moeen 39, Ngidi 3-48) beat South Africa 202 for 7 (de Kock 65, van der Dussen 43*) by two runs
A one-run margin on Wednesday, a two-run margin on Friday. Any chance of your fingernails growing back by Sunday? On an evening that throbbed like a Durban minibus, Tom Curran held his nerve superbly in a death-over scenario that had uncanny parallels with the World Cup final Super Over, as England levelled the three-match T20I series with just the decider at Centurion to come.
On an evening featuring 28 sixes - more than had ever before been scored in a T20I involving England or South Africa - the contest came down to the very final over, the very final ball, with Curran defending 15 runs, the same figure that Jofra Archer had had to play with at Lord's last summer, and then as now, the rollercoaster went to the very final twist.
A second-ball slog for six over cow corner? Check. Five runs needed from three balls? Check, as Dwaine Pretorius set himself to be a hero with a lacerating drive through the covers. Three from two? Check, as a canny leg-stump yorker was dug out to midwicket. Only then did the script truly deviate, as Curran showcased that desire to be a hero that sets the very best death-over specialists apart from the rest.
Up he popped with consecutive wickets, a pinpoint yorker to trap Pretorius in front of off - a moment that flirted with controversy as Quinton de Kock, the captain, appeared to instigate South Africa's use of the review with an impassioned signal from the dressing room. And then, the sucker punch. With Rassie van der Dussen stranded at the wrong end after keeping his team alive with 43 from 26, Curran served up a back-of-the-hand slowie to the new man Bjorn Fortuin, who could only flap an attempted ramp to short fine leg.
Even then there was an agonised wait for the final, final verdict, as Adil Rashid had been back-pedalling in anticipation of the catch. The umpires again called for the second opinion, but at the moment of Curran's release, Rashid was not obviously outside the fielding circle. And thus the decision, and the result, stood. Crumbs.
There were contributions all down the order from both teams, but none more thrilling than the efforts of de Kock and Moeen Ali, who exchanged a pair of the most startlingly clean-hitting cameos imaginable to ignite each half of the contest.
Building on the earlier efforts of Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow, Moeen made 39 from just 11 deliveries, including three fours and four sixes. At one stage he defied the physics of his midwicket followthrough with an outrageous pat over point off a Lungi Ngidi full-toss.
But set an imposing 205 for victory, de Kock responded with the insouciant genius that he has displayed in every format this winter. He blazed his way to a 17-ball fifty - the fastest in T20Is for South Africa - and 65 from 22 all told. His eight sixes all came in a blistering mid-innings onslaught that spanned 15 balls - three in four balls from Moeen, two in two from Curran. There was simply nowhere safe in the ground, least of all for the motionless ball-boy at midwicket, who was all but mown down by a rampaging Ben Stokes, hurtling in vain round the rope.
Ngidi poses the Buttler question
In his previous two white-ball games, at Johannesburg in the final ODI and at Buffalo Park on Wednesday, Ngidi's returns with old and new ball had been revealing - combined figures of 0 for 72 in seven overs at the top of the innings, and 6 for 21 in six at the death. But on this occasion he needed just five Powerplay deliveries to make his mark, and in so doing, he passed the start-finish question directly across to his victim.
Few players in England's line-up are better capable of mugging the death overs than Jos Buttler … but his innings of 2 from 4 balls in the Powerplay here, coupled with his inconclusive 15 from 10 on Wednesday reawakened the question about where best to use him. A cross-seamer from Ngidi lured a flat-footed nick to the keeper, and for the second match running, England's ODI openers, Roy and Bairstow were united in the middle before the end of the third over.
And for the second match running, neither man died wondering in reprising their iconic 50-over form: 72 from 39 balls at East London, 52 from 25 today. Like Gilchrist and Hayden, or Greenidge and Haynes, perhaps some partnerships are just born to dovetail.
Stokes in the spotlight …
Remember the build-up to the 2019 World Cup, and the genuine questions about whether Stokes' place was under threat? (Google the articles, it would be mean to single anyone out…) Well, welcome to the lead-up to the 2020 T20 World Cup, in which the Stokes question is likely to rumble much like his laboured innings of 47 from 30 balls - notwithstanding it surpassed his previous T20I best of 38.
It looked all right in the final analysis - though that was more a testament to Stokes' refusal to surrender despite barely timing a stroke all evening. Indeed, had Beuran Hendricks reacted a touch quicker at long-on, Stokes might have fallen to a slog-pull for the second time in as many innings. But the shot skittered to the rope for his first boundary, instead of sending him on his way for a sluggish 6 from 10.
Stokes' stunning performances in Tests and ODIs of late have stemmed, first and foremost, from a watertight defence and an ability to accelerate into his day's work. And sure enough, the longer he endured, the more he began to find his range, as the silken timing of Moeen at the other end, let alone de Kock in South Africa's reply, showed that this was not a pitch on which muscle alone could seize the day...
…and yet, who in their right mind would take the field without Stokes in their line-up? With David Miller threatening to fill de Kock's sizeable shoes, Stokes was thrown the ball for a pivotal 13th over. A length ball, wide line but appreciable nibble off the deck, drew a wafty air shot and instantly changed the mood. Another dot followed, again outside the eyeline, and Miller's only response was a desperate slog to long-on. Van der Dussen and Jon-Jon Smuts exchanged singles but the damage had been done.
Pace on, pace off
Dale Steyn made his first international appearance in 11 months at East London, but the Durban crowd was treated to a rather lower-octane opening. With the old man resting due to the 48-hour turnaround, in came the offspinner Fortuin, whose ODI debut on this ground last week was obliterated by the rain, but whose 2 for 19 in three overs had been crucial to a series-squaring win against India in his previous T20I in September.
His evening's work was short and to the point - his first Powerplay over was rudely dented by a massive wipe for six from Roy, and his second was self-sabotaged by a spilled return catch as Bairstow battered a drive. He wasn't seen again after that, not even during England's fallow middle overs as his fellow spinner Taibraz Shamsi put a check on a rampant run-rate.
Bavuma 1 Jordan 0
Two of the most outstanding outfielders in world cricket went head-to-head in this contest, and it was South Africa's representative who stole the evening's plaudits. Temba Bavuma's running, stretching, tumbling catch to intercept a bullet of a drive from Chris Jordan at long-off was a stunner … though it would have been surpassed by the oh-so-near miss off Stokes in the same position just two balls earlier. His athleticism couldn't be faulted, but his 5-foot-nothing frame just couldn't stretch the distance.
A handful of overs later, however, the roles were reversed. Jordan the bowler, Bavuma the hitter … and Jordan the dropper, as he stuck out his left hand in full expectation of clinging onto a regulation blinder, but watched in disbelief as a fierce off-drive thundered out of his fingers. And then, in his final over of the evening, he repeated the dose to reprieve Pretorius. Lesser cricketers would never have reacted fast enough to be deemed culpable.
Pace is pace yaar
The decisive moment of South Africa's innings, and ultimately the match, came from a delivery that de Kock ought perhaps have been rather better acquainted with. At East London, Mark Wood had been extraordinarily lucky not to have been hauled from the attack after consecutive beamers from his first two balls. The second was deemed by the square leg umpire to have dipped below waist-height just in time, though de Kock could hardly have been less fazed. He slapped it for six, having under-edged the former for four to make it 11 from 2.
But this evening, when Wood served up another high full-bunger, de Kock's eye this time betrayed him. Stokes at long-on completed the catch (albeit there was a nervous wait for the third umpire's verdict), and two balls later, a 92mph lifter strangled Bavuma down the leg side. For bowlers of a lesser velocity, they'd have counted as a pair of pies. On such small margins…