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Ifs, buts and babies: A series of what might have been for South Africa in England

Seemingly set for a series defeat in England, South Africa will be left to rue key absentees and loss of form to crucial players.

FafduPlessis - Cropped
South Africa captain Faf du Plessis

Moeen Ali's masterful counter-punch served as a microcosm of South Africa's "what-if" series against England as the hosts charged seemingly inexorably towards victory at Old Trafford.

England closed on 224-8 on a gloomy Sunday in Manchester, 360 ahead and, on a pitch offering intermittent sharp turn and variable bounce, are strong favourites to claim the Test and secure a 3-1 series success.

When Moeen walked to the crease at 134-6, England's lead was 270 and the Proteas were sniffing an unlikely win and a 2-2 draw.

Then Moeen on 15, was put down by Dean Elgar at slip off Keshav Maharaj. He reached stumps 67 not out off 59 balls, having clubbed eight fours as well as lofting the beleaguered bowler over the ropes on three occasions.

Elgar's chance was one you would expect him to take and the Proteas may well reflect on this tour as a whole with more than a lingering sense of regret and a feeling of what might have been.

Their crushing 340-run success in the second Test at Trent Bridge to level the series was irrefutable evidence of their ability to destroy a vulnerable looking home side.

For, without question, that is what England are.

Their top-order woes have been well documented; Keaton Jennings' dismissal on Sunday was met with the reaction of a man who knows he may not see the Test arena again for some time, while Gary Ballance, Tom Westley and Dawid Malan have all been unconvincing in their attempts to stake a claim for a regular place in the top five.

And yet South Africa, grappling with issues of their own, have not capitalised.

Their cause has not been helped by the absence of star batsman AB de Villiers, who opted to take a rest from the five-day game to create some space amid his hectic schedule.

Few can begrudge De Villiers that comfort, and absolutely no-one could argue with captain Faf du Plessis' decision to miss the opening Test at Lord's to help his wife and baby settle in after the difficult birth of their first child.

Du Plessis' return did herald that Trent Bridge triumph but the skipper has not filled the void left by his great mate De Villiers with the bat and has averaged just 22, his woes best summed up in the 239-run mauling at The Oval when he was out lbw in each innings offering no shot.

Likewise, Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock have been well below their best form and at the top of the order Heino Kuhn, in his first (and potentially last) Test series averages less than 15, with one knock to come.

But the tourists' struggles have not been confined to the batting department. They are, of course, missing the world's premier strike bowler in Dale Steyn as he recovers from a serious shoulder injury.

Vernon Philander has looked the perfect bowler for English conditions and has tormented the home batsmen, but at all-too infrequent intervals. Illness and injury have left him firing at 50 per cent at best, while he was forced out of this Test altogether.

With his two partners in crime unable to assist him ably – and Kyle Abbott opting to play for Hampshire rather than pursue his international career – Morne Morkel has been the shining light for South Africa.

His 17 wickets in the series hardly do his work justice, and he set the tone for South Africa's initially excellent Sunday by removing both Alastair Cook and Westley in the morning session as he charged in to deliver pace and precision in equal measure.

Alas, for the Proteas, Morkel's magic was outshone by the marvellous Moeen and thus the series was encapsulated as South Africa were ultimately left to contemplate a likely defeat and rue what might have been.

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