JOE ROOT was like a combination of Graeme Swann and Jim Laker as he sucked batsmen into his spinner’s web.
Captain Root looked almost unplayable at times and teased and tormented South Africa on day four of the Third Test.
Root dismissed four top players and ended with the remarkable, career-best figures of 19-11-31-4. He’d never previously taken more than two wickets in a Test innings.
Not bad for a fella who bats for a living and bowls mainly as an afterthought.
With Mark Wood taking two wickets in his comeback match and providing the complete opposite – searing pace and a big fear factor – England are closing in on a crushing victory.
Earlier, Stuart Broad had three quick wickets as England wrapped up South Africa’s first innings by taking four for one run in the first 28 balls of the day.
By the close, South Africa had descended in their second innings to 102-6 – still 188 runs behind – and only rain can prevent England going 2-1 ahead with one Test to play.
Root extracted some sharp turn that would have had his old team-mate Swann clicking his fingers.
And Laker? Well, he was a legendary off-spinner turned commentator who once took 19 wickets in a single Test against the Aussies.
Perhaps this wasn’t on that level but there is no doubt Root, bowling almost exclusively from round the wicket, had the South African batsman floundering.
His first victim was opener Pieter Malan, lbw after scoring 12 from 79 balls, and then Ollie Pope held a leaping, one-handed screamer at short leg to account for Rassie van der Dussen.
Left-hander Quinton de Kock skewed to backward point where Wood leapt, held the ball above his head and embarked on a manic celebratory sprint.
Finally, Root had opposite number Faf du Plessis held by Pope via bat and pad.
Root can call himself a proper all-rounder now because his bowling average (46.75) is currently lower than his batting average (48.27).
Wood said with a smile: “Rooty bowled himself at the right end, the spinning end! He’s not stupid, is he?
“Because he’s captain, he often underbowls himself. He does get key wickets and has been working a lot on his bowling in the nets.”
In the morning, England took four wickets before spectators had barely taken their seats as South Africa’s batsmen abandoned patience for madness.
Vernon Philander and de Kock were bowled by Broad and Sam Curran offering loose wafts and then Keshav Maharaj dragged on attempting a bizarre cross-batted hoick.
Kagiso Rabada was last man out driving Broad to mid-off. Not the best recipe to try to save a game.
Root enforced the follow-on for the first time since the floodlit Test against West Indies at Edgbaston in 2017. With rain around, Root knew it was England’s most direct route to the big prize.
The Proteas reached 15-0 in their second innings before rain wrecked the middle part of the day. Altogether, 29 overs were lost.
On the resumption, Wood made the two initial breakthroughs.
He bowled Dean Elgar via an edge and sent his off stump cartwheeling and then had Zubayr Hamza caught down the legside.
Hamza is a real problem for South Africa. There is no getting away from the fact that he looked – well, anxious would be putting it kindly – against Wood’s extreme pace.
In both innings, Hamza was jumping around at the crease, ducking and dodging, and wanting to be anywhere other than in the firing line.
This is a man who averages 49 in first-class cricket so he can clearly bat even if the quality of the South African system has plummeted in recent years.
With Jofra Archer hopeful of being fit following his elbow injury – he bowled in the middle during both the lunch and tea intervals – England could have a seriously-rapid attack for the Fourth Test on Friday.
And it is being played at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, the quickest pitch in the country. There is no way Hamza should walk out at No3 in that game.
Wood, playing his first red-ball match since February last year and first game of any sort since the World Cup final, added: “I’m loving it.
“I’ve waited a while to come back so I’m trying to have fun, play with a smile on my face and take it all in. It’s been great fun even if I did milk that catch!”
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Root took the next four wickets and even bowled a bouncer in the final over of the day that Philander hooked for four.
Wood should have had another scalp when Philander pulled to backward square leg and Ben Stokes dropped the chest-high chest.
Incredibly, that’s four catches Stokes has spilled in this match and six in the last two Tests.