The South African captain was the victim of a hostile throw from his own coach, Mark Boucher, which bounced off the front of his shoulder and hit him on the grille. Elgar was later spotted holding the arm awkwardly with an ice pack to the injured area, and he did not take part in any slip catching. But sources confirm his participation in the decider is not in any doubt. If it was, it would really have hurt as South Africa are still searching for a way to put more runs on the board.
For Petersen, the task ahead is simple in word, albeit tricky in practice. “It’s obvious. We need to score hundreds up top,” he said. “That hasn’t happened for a while now. The batters have to step up now and get a couple of big scores.”
Rickleton comes in off a second hot streak of form, both of which South Africa have failed to capitalise on. He scored three hundreds and a ninety in five first-class innings between November 2021 and January 2022 but did not play against New Zealand on South Africa’s February tour despite Petersen missing the tour after he contracted Covid-19. Now, Rickelton has two hundreds and four fifties in eight innings for Northamptonshire on a short-term deal he got by chance but specifically in preparation to play in England.
In South Africa, Rickelton is known for his temperament – honed by years of practising in the school nets when his father was sporting director – and ability to build an innings, something no South African batter besides Erwee has done on the tour so far. He has struck the balance between patience and power-hitting and crucially, converts his starts. He has 14 first-class fifties and 12 hundreds. Of Rickleton’s 12 centuries, five are scores of 150-plus. No-one in South Africa’s Test squad has made a score of that significance since Faf du Plessis’ 199 against Sri Lanka in the Boxing Day Test in 2020, 14 Test matches ago.
Petersen puts the lack of big runs down to mindset rather than application, and doesn’t yet have a solution other than showing more resolve. “It’s all mental. I don’t think we’ve struggled to get in. It’s getting starts and getting out, that’s the problem,” he said. “It’s the situation in the middle that you have to prepare for, and you know it’s going to be tough. You have to at least try and fight through that tough period. That’s where you have to challenge yourself mentally all the time. There’s no real process of doing that. It’s just going to happen in the moment.”
Mulder’s place in South Africa’s set-up remains confusing – he hasn’t played a white-ball game in a year, has lost ground to Dwaine Pretorius and Wayne Parnell and did not make the T20 World Cup squad. He played Tests as recently as the Bangladesh series in March-April and then missed out on this squad. With Marco Jansen the preferred allrounder, it’s difficult to see how Mulder will get a more regular run but if the opportunity presents itself, given the form he is in, he’s in a good place to grab it.
With some parts of their XI unsettled, South Africa are not going into the decider in as stable a position as they may like to. Their batting still presents more questions than answers, it’s still scraping along thanks to several small contributions and it has to improve markedly if it’s going to challenge the best bowling attacks in the world.
But it has got them through four series undefeated (West Indies, India, New Zealand and Bangladesh) and is one win (or draw, though South Africa have not drawn a Test since 2017) away from a fifth and it’s as ready as it can be. “This is what we live for as cricketers: series deciders. It’s going to be thrilling,” Petersen said. “There’s a lot on the line for both teams and I think you’re going to get a good game.”
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent