LONDON – Faf du Plessis didn’t mind losing the toss here on Thursday.
He probably wouldn’t have been too concerned to bat, but he also said he was very unsure how the pitch would play, so having a bowl suited him.
Du Plessis mentioned in the build-up to this Test that his top-order didn’t mind playing on grassy, seaming pitches, because that’s what they asked for in South Africa last summer when they took on and beat Sri Lanka.
Of course, with all due respect to Suranga Lakmal and Co, James Anderson and Stuart Broad provide a significantly more challenging examination on grassy surfaces.
South Africa’s batsmen proved in Nottingham they could prosper, however.
Vernon Philander and Morné Morkel are pretty adept themselves at bowling in conditions which aid their seam and pace.
Given the rollicking his batsmen have taken from former players since the second Test, it has to be said that Joe Root’s decision to bat first on this surface under cloudy skies was a brave one as England ended the rain-shortened first day of the third Test on 171/4.
It almost demanded that his batsmen show more application and nous.
Keaton Jennings may not have appreciated that, his nine-ball nightmare against Philander again exposing a technique where hands and eyes are not aligned.
Perhaps due to the fact that Philander only bowled four overs in his first spell – the result of a “tummy bug,” according to team management – the rest of the attack didn’t have a guide for which areas were most troubling for the English batsmen.
Morkel was too short, while Rabada, back after suspension, didn’t control the swinging ball.
Alastair Cook and his Essex buddy Tom Westley – one of three England debutants – dug in, with Westley perhaps given too many easy balls to hit off his legs.
Cook was characteristically resolute, defending stoutly and leaving well outside his off-stump. That forced the South Africans to straighten their lines, which played right into Cook’s hands.
The Proteas improved after lunch, with Westley removed by a gem by the otherwise erratic Chris Morris.
It was a short spell from Morkel to Root which set the tone after the interval. Root had been playing fluently against Morris, but suddenly couldn’t lay his bat on the ball as Morkel tore into him from the Pavilion End.
Morkel deserved the wicket, but Philander – sufficiently recovered from whatever ailed him – produced a “jaffer” to snare the England captain, with De Kock’s stunning one-handed diving catch rounding off a picturesque dismissal.
In that same category was Rabada’s destruction of the stumps of another of England’s debutants, Dawid Malan.
While an embarrassment for the batsman, it’s a glorious sight for any fast bowler when, besides the stumps, the opposing batsman is also floored, as Malan was in that instance.
South Africa won’t be displeased with their performance. They bowled enough wicket-taking balls that they probably feel their efforts weren’t sufficiently rewarded.
The mini-session after tea in which Cook – who finished the day unbeaten on 82 – and Ben Stokes played out seven overs may yet be a key period in the context of the match.
That Stokes was able to survive a testing burst from Philander may yet prove beneficial for the home team.
Cook, rather like Amla at Trent Bridge, seems to have found his rhythm for batting in this format, and all those powers of concentration will be required on Friday to keep the Proteas at bay.
The tourists, meanwhile, will want to be on point like they were in the last two sessions, and hope the ball will find the edge more often than was the case on Thursday evening.