Day 1 of 5: England 260/6
MANCHESTER – South Africa turned up here on Friday morning expecting to make just one change to the starting XI, while adding a positional switch in the batting too, with Temba Bavuma moving from No 6 to No 4 in the order.
But before play started – and having already known they’d be without Chris Morris – the Proteas then lost the services of Vernon Philander.
Although Faf du Plessis said he was at “90 percent” full fitness on Thursday, which meant SA were going to play an extra seamer,by the time the captain went to the toss, Philander was out, and the tourists had to cobble together a starting XI.
That team then included the seven front-line batsmen, with Olivier coming in for Morris and Theunis de Bruyn starting in place of Philander.
Four bowlers – three seamers and the spin of Keshav Maharaj – plus some ‘fill-in’ overs from De Bruyn, Bavuma and possibly Dean Elgar (depending on the state of his injured left index finger) will have to take the 20 wickets needed to win this Test and draw the series.
All of that considered, South Africa’s bowlers did a sterling job.
Morné Morkel continues to operate without luck in this series. He has beaten the bat on numerous occasions, bowled spells that have built pressure and gained wickets for teammates, while he’s generally taken on the role as leader of the attack.
In the absence of Dale Steyn, it’s been Morkel’s moment to shine, and if Lady Luck had smiled on him, the kinds of wicket hauls Steyn normally registers could have been his in England.
So Morkel bowled a fine opening spell first up with the new ball, beat the outside edge and generally made life difficult for England’s openers, and then saw Olivier pick up the wicket of Keaton Jennings.
After lunch it was Kagiso Rabada and Maharaj who put the squeeze on England, with Rabada producing his best bowling of the seriesm and in one spell from the newly named James Anderson End, he was desperately unfortunate not to dismiss the captain Joe Root.
He shifted the ball away from the right-hander, but caused him the most trouble when he got it to dart back into Root – generating some close appeals for lbw, including one the South Africans asked the TV official Joel Wilson to assess, but the on-field decision was upheld, with the ball kissing the top of the leg bail.
Morkel bowled the next spell from the same end and should have had Root caught behind – Lady Luck not in his corner – when he found a thick edge.
But Quinton de Kock didn’t move – a less athletic move to his right required than the spectacular catch he took to dismiss Tom Westley.
A furious Morkel stomped the earth, another build-up of pressure from him bringing no reward.
Instead Olivier, having received some stern words from Du Plessis, induced a false stroke from Root, trapping him lbw for 52 – the 10th time in a row Root has scored at least 50 in an innings of a Test match.
All the while Maharaj wheeled away at the Statham End, giving little away and even on the odd occasion generating chances through his crafty changes of pace and spin.
If the Proteas could have had the wicket of Jonny Bairstow three overs later, the whole first day could have belonged to them.
Instead Wilson, after being asked to check if Dean Elgar had got his hands underneath the ball when Bairstow edged Maharaj to him at slip, said the ball had bounced in front of the fielder.
Ex-players like Graeme Swann and Michael Atherton believed the catch had been completed cleanly, but the angles of the cameras being what they are, were never in support of the fielder.
Ben Stokes was starting to turn the day England’s way with a technically proficient half-century until Rabada returned and ripped through his defences with a stunning yorker in the penultimate over of the day.
England, with Moeen Ali still to come and Bairstow on 34, will still feel they are ahead of the game.
But the Proteas will be pleased with their hard work in the face of some unexpected adversity visited upon them at the start of the day.