These are the players South Africa have to work with, and when they are most up against it, they offer shards of hope that could expand into something bigger. On a morning that began with the Springboks losing 17-25 to Australia in the Rugby Championship and the top three losing their wickets inside 14 overs, it was Petersen – out of form in his county stint with Durham and out of practice since then – and van der Dussen, with a broken finger, who kept South Africa’s engine going.
Petersen is the most technically sound batter in the South African line-up right now. His defensive game is solid, he moves his feet well and he has a soft, wristy touch. He is not afraid to get a good stride in against the fuller ball and he keeps his cool when the opposition go short. England tried to cramp him for room but Petersen rode the bounce, and found a way to play some shots. The quality he displayed best in this innings was patience, as he faced 159 balls over four hours for just 42 runs. It’s not Bazball at all, and there may be some criticism over the way he stonewalled instead of trying to chip away at the deficit quicker, but that would be harsh. South Africa did not have much to come after him, so he had to play responsibly.
Van der Dussen’s approach is usually the same and this time it was enhanced by a dash of heroism as he came out to bat despite a series-ending injury. After copping a ball to his left index finger while fielding at short fine leg late on day one, van der Dussen spent the entire second day off the field and was then seen in training gear on the third morning on the dressing-room balcony with an aluminium splint around the digit. When Elgar was dismissed, he changed into his whites. With his Test career on the line, van der Dussen was not going to let a lack of finger functionality stop him from making his case.
He left the first four balls he faced, but he had to keep out the fifth. Immediately after his bat made contact with the ball, he took his top off the handle, to minimise the impact on the injury. In total, van der Dussen hit 116 of the 132 balls he faced. Each one would have hurt. The balls that pinned him to his crease and forced a block would have hurt a little more. He eventually got one from Stokes, in the first over after tea, that spooked him so much that, when the next ball curved away, he followed it and nicked off. He left carrying his bat in his right hand.
While South Africa’s management ignored queries about the extent of van der Dussen’s injury until the end of play, his reactions implied it was serious. This has since been confirmed and van der Dussen will return home to consult a finger specialist. He is out of the third Test, and may be wondering about his red-ball future, considering he averages 24.16 from his last 13 innings and might have been dropped for that decider anyway.
Today, his innings was a microcosm of South Africa’s. It was painful but gutsy and, in the end, it counted for very little. They only have themselves to blame. The days of blockathons are long gone, but not even that would have sufficed after the way their first innings went. Being shot out for 151 left South Africa in a dire position, against a top-quality England attack in helpful conditions for both seam and spin, and has asked them the questions about their batting resources that need to be asked. The answers are proving difficult to find.
But for this series, going to south London at 1-1 is not the worst thing that could have happened, and not just for neutrals. South Africa will only play one more three-Test series in this cycle (against Australia at the end of the year) before six two-Test series in the 2023-2025 World Test Championship. That could leave a generation of players who never get to experience the ebbs and flows of multiple meetings over the course of a month or more, and the thrill of a decider.
This squad may not have wanted that, especially as they had the opportunity to build on the momentum of their massive win at Lord’s and the quality of bowling that could have closed out the series here. So their broken car will keep chugging along, knowing that it can’t be powered by the wheels alone. The rest of the parts have to be re-oiled since they can’t be replaced, and South Africa will have to go again.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent