Trent Bridge: Written off by experts – both the couch potato variety and those who’ve previously played Test cricket – South African staged an incredible turnaround here that so overwhelmed England they collapsed in an ugly heap an hour before tea yesterday.
So much for batting six sessions as they claimed they could do – England couldn’t last two.
Beaten by 211 runs at Lord’s last week, with many claiming they’d lose the series 4-0, South Africa showed that by eliminating errors, they were every bit England’s equal.
No catches were dropped (four were at Lord’s), no no-balls bowled (10 were at Lord’s). Of the 20 extras South Africa conceded, just one was a wide.
It was a character test too, skipper Faf du Plessis claimed before the match. They certainly passed with flying colours. It started with team selection, South Africa foregoing their usual seven batsmen-four bowlers structure by picking six frontline batsmen, two all-rounders and four seamers. Quinton de Kock was moved up the order to no.4.
Du Plessis chose to bat under murky skies on that first morning, knowing James Anderson and Stuart Broad have brilliant records here and in Anderson’s case conditions suited him to a ‘T’.
The Proteas played patiently, showed the character their skipper demanded, and set a first innings total that while not exceptional was solid enough that they could apply pressure on the English.
The wicket of Root was a major turning point on Saturday afternoon. In the lunch interval before that, Du Plessis had made clear to his bowlers to be aggressive, not to get caught up in trying to swing the ball too much, just to bowl as fast as they could.
That message resonated with Chris Morris in particular, and after a poor first spell in which Root had smashed him around the ground, he returned, picked up three wickets and never looked back. His dismissal of the England captain yesterday with a searing outswinging yorker is one of the balls of the year and it sucked the life out of the crowd who were still very optimistic England could at least salvage something from this Test while Root and former captain Alastair Cook was at the crease.
But Morris struck his second blow by removing Cook with a bouncer that left even Cook – a wonderful hooker and puller – in a proper mess.
South Africa’s bowling, with the exception of Duanne Olivier, was outstanding.
Vernon Philander loves playing in England – he averages 40.26 with the bat and 21.60 with the ball here – and this Test was another fine example of his all-round prowess.
It was he who made the initial breakthroughs yesterday, exposing the suspect techniques of Keaton Jennings and Gary Ballance. He returned later and made a very difficult caught and bowled dismissal against Ben Stokes look far simpler than it really was. His 54 with the bat in the first innings, followed by 42 in the second, were part of a display that any all-rounder would have been proud of.
And that’s how the players can feel about their performance. A family tragedy meant coach Russell Domingo was away, they were slated from all corners after Lord’s, this tour has been a terrible one in terms of results and they were without their young fast bowling kingpin for this Test.
And they won. It’s one of the sweeter victories, Du Plessis’s ninth as captain in his 13th Test in charge. “In terms of a turnaround it’s pretty huge,” he said. “But it’s just one step for us, we’ve got two more to go to win the series.”
Faf du Plessis admitted that after winning the toss, the decision to bat was a risky one. Yet it was one he was willing to take knowing his players had the mental fortitude to do the job. With cloudy skies and a fresh pitch, the conditions were ideal for James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who have previously thrived at this ground. SA faced 23 overs in a shortened session, scored 56 runs for the loss of Dean Elgar’s wicket - a vital platform from which South Africa built a solid first innings total.
South Africa’s batsmen didn’t set out to be pretty in this Test. The ‘white ball’ stuff is over, batting here was about digging in and occupying the crease. With the exception of Quinton de Kock in the first innings, the rest of the batsmen used old-fashioned Test batting to wear down the England bowlers. Even Chris Morris in that first innings was all sturdy defence, even while England were using the spinners before the second new ball.
A major turning point on Saturday afternoon - Joe Root was magnificent, applying pressure back onto the South Africans after the early loss of the openers.
Such was the nature of his attack that while he was at the crease, England looked like they would at least equal South Africa’s first innings total. But Morne Morkel, already in the midst of a lengthy spell, went for one more over, inducing a false drive, with De Kock taking a fine catch. It changed the course of England’s innings, they collapsed, losing their last six wickets for 62 runs. That 130-run lead for the South Africans was immense.
Quinton de Kock and Jonny Bairstow were outstanding with the gloves in this match. Both took some wonderfully athletic catches down the leg-side - Bairstow’s to dismiss Faf du Plessis and De Kock to end Alastair Cook’s innings yesterday. There’s an old saying that you’re not supposed to notice a wicket-keeper but they’ve hung on to some excellent catches in this series already and are well worth the price of admission.
For all the pre-match talk about how much Broad and Anderson loved it here and how this venue suited their strengths, it was South Africa who made the conditions work for them. Vernon Philander’s seam, Morkel’s bounce, Chris Morris’ pace and Keshav Maharaj’s spin were all better than anything the English put forward.
“I can’t believe I just saw that. It’s too easy, you just dangle the carrot, you know they will go for it. Absolutely dumb batting.”
* Former England player Michael Vaughan, commentating on Jonny Bairstow’s dismissal for the BBC yesterday.
It was a dismissal symptomatic of England’s batting problems in this Test. Their players, particularly in the middle order, are very good on the attack, less so when asked to defend or to play for time.