Henry Nicholls and BJ Watling provided some resistance for New Zealand before spinner Dane Piedt made an important breakthrough to leave the visitors on 95 for five at tea on the fourth day of the second Test against South Africa at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Tuesday.
Nicholls and Watling came together with New Zealand on a perilous seven for four, pacemen Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander having ripped through the top order, and they showed excellent determination as they added 68 for the fifth wicket.
Once Steyn and Philander were rested after lunch, Kagiso Rabada was unable to back up their efforts, and it was off-spinner Piedt who eventually claimed the fifth wicket, two hours after the fourth victim had fallen.
Watling was trapped lbw for 32 by a delivery that turned sharply, TV umpire Richard Illingworth confirming that umpire Paul Reiffel had been correct to give the batsman out as he went across his stumps and tried to work the ball on the leg-side. Hawkeye showed that Watling was not struck outside the line of off-stump, which was the key question.
The 24-year-old Nicholls showed in his first-innings 36 that he has potential at the highest level, and he had done well to reach tea on 37 not out. Mitchell Santner is with him on eight not out and together they will want to ensure that New Zealand see out the day without further loss, given them an outside chance of surviving on the last day.
A top-class burst of new-ball bowling from Steyn had left New Zealand in a state of disarray at lunch with the visitors on 18 for four.
South Africa had batted for an hour in the morning session, taking their overnight score of 105 for six to 132 for seven before declaring with Temba Bavuma on a determined 40 not out. It left New Zealand with a theoretical target of 400 for victory, but way more realistically with five-and-a-half sessions to survive on a pitch that is providing a disconcerting amount of inconsistent bounce.
Steyn made a phenomenal start to the New Zealand innings with a wicket with his first ball and then another with his sixth, dismissing both openers, Tom Latham and Martin Guptill for first-ball ducks, only the fifth time that has happened in Test history.
He found the right length and swing with the minimum of fuss, and also zeroed in on the cracks that gave him extra bounce to dismiss Latham and Guptill and sent the ball scurrying at ankle height to trap Ross Taylor lbw in his second over.
Latham played on to his stumps as he battled to withdraw the bat from a delivery outside off stump that nipped back in and leapt off the pitch, while Guptill’s average against South Africa sank to an ugly 14.38 when he edged a tremendous delivery, bouncing and swinging away, to first slip.
Taylor was also dismissed for a duck, suffering the horrible fate of watching helplessly as the ball jagged off a crack and kept low, striking him just above the foot straight in front of the stumps.
Much has been said about how crucial captain Kane Williamson is to the New Zealand batting lineup, and he persevered for nearly half-an-hour in scoring five before Vernon Philander chipped in with his wicket. Williamson was playing a positive shot, driving off the back foot, but the ball just nipped away to find the edge of the bat and wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock flung himself full-length to claim an outstanding, low catch.
South Africa did not manage to land any other blows before lunch as Nicholls (7*) and Watling (5*) survived the next four overs.
The Proteas added 27 runs to their second innings in the morning, the Black Caps removing Philander for 14, but the prospect of bowlers suffering blows to fingers and arms perhaps hastened the declaration.
Philander was bowled when he shouldered arms – a misjudgement because the ball was just outside off stump – and Tim Southee (16-6-46-3) made the ball cut back, but Bavuma was really courageous and impressive in finishing with 40 not out after 113 balls and nearly three hours at the crease in extremely tough conditions.