CAPE TOWN – One of Test cricket’s many idiosyncrasies is that the true value of a pitch cannot be ascertained until the other team has batted. On the basis of this South Africa must still wait and see.
But for every other reason they will be pleased with their graft yesterday in restricting England to 262/9 in their first innings. Considering the tourists had actually won the prized toss and opted to take first strike on a surface that initially had everyone thinking back to the road of 2016 when 1256 runs were amassed in the first innings’ of the corresponding fixture here, it was indeed a superb effort.
The fact that nine wickets fell perhaps showed that the surface was not as benign as many would have had us believe. In fact, it was line with traditional Newlands pitches where bowlers that are blessed with skill such as Vernon Philander (2/46), Kagiso Rabada’s (2/63) pace, Anrich Nortje’s hostility (2/54) and Dwaine Pretorius’ discipline (2/26) would be rewarded.
Philander, in particular, playing in his last Test on his beloved home ground where the glorious Table Mountain overlooks from above like no other found significant seam movement with both new balls. It accounted for his wickets.
England, meanwhile, will feel like the world is against them at the moment. Beset with illness at the beginning of the tour, they arrived in Cape Town hoping to find a way back into the series. Instead, the Mother City was equally damning with opener Rory Burns ruled out of the series with an ankle injury sustained while playing warm-up football on the eve of this Test. Premier fast bowler Jofra Archer was also forced to sit out with an elbow injury.
Such late shuffling of the pack will test even the most settled squads. For a side whose captain’s future is in jeopardy after going a year without a Test series win it is basically a sledgehammer.
The lack of confidence was evident. All the batsmen bar Ben Stokes (47), Ollie Pope (56*) and Jos Buttler were tentative and fearful of taking the game to South Africa. Considering the way England play white-ball cricket and uber positive style they utilised to win the World Cup last year, it almost implausible to believe that it’s the same nation.
Crawley succumbed to Philander pushing outside the outside off-stump. Likewise opening partner Dom Sibley with Rabada benefitting on this occasion. The fact that the top seven batsmen – bar Crawley – all absorbed the early pressure to move beyond 30 before getting out just when well set was a further indication that the visitors were not able to take the match at the scruff of its neck when the opportunity rose. Captain Joe Root would easily be the most frustrated with this turn of events, after highlighting the fact that his team needed to play the “big moments” better during the build-up.
“I think they got a lot of guys that got in and got out at the wrong times for them. A lot of 30’s. I would say that looking at that wicket … I obviously haven’t played much Test cricket … but looking at that wicket I would say that at least 350 would be a par score. I think definitely they are at least 70 runs short on that wicket. It was hard work getting wickets. But I think our disciplines really allowed us to strike at the right times,” Proteas all-rounder Pretorius said.
Instead they dropped their guard, and South Africa were right there ready to pounce with their “back-up” bowlers producing a sterling effort to initially maintain the run-rate before striking telling blows like Nortje getting Ben Stokes to smash one straight to cover and Pretorius claiming two wickets just prior to the new ball being due.
The only blemish on a near-perfect day for this new-look Proteas side was the final half-hour where Pope’s innovation unnerved the home team. Playing with all the freedom of a 22-year-old, Pope carved, nudged and bludgeoned his way to a second Test half-century that brought some much-needed relief to the visitors’ dressingroom.
South Africa have already given the precocious youngster a lifeline when Rabada over-stepped the front crease, but they will return on Saturday morning eager to stop his festivities and begin the serious business of their starting their first innings sooner rather than later.