WEST BRIDGFORD, England - Faf du Plessis, upon his return to the South African starting line-up immediately put his under-fire batsmen under the microscope by choosing to bat in very difficult conditions here this morning.
Given the trouble they had at Lord’s and more generally in the last 12 months, it was a reasonable effort from the South African top order as the visitors reached lunch on 56/1 with Heino Kuhn on 34 and Hashim Amla on 16.
Kuhn gradually grew in confidence the closer he got to the interval and in a short stint after 20-minute rain delay, he hit a couple of neat boundaries, including his favourite cut off Ben Stokes. Earlier, he’d been hit on the hand by Stuart Broad and later missed a pull against Mark Wood and was struck on the back of the head.
South Africa made three changes to the side that lost by 211 runs at Lord’s. Du Plessis returned to the starting team after the birth of his first child, in place of the out of form JP Duminy, while Duanne Olivier, the leading wicket-taker in the Sunfoil Series last summer, came in for the suspended Kagiso Rabada. The final change saw Chris Morris selected ahead of Theunis de Bruyn, meaning South Africa went away from the seven-four batting split which has served them well in the last five years.
On a murky morning, and with a pitch that had a fair covering of grass, the England bowlers would have been licking their lips. Joe Root, the England captain said he would have bowled and in Jimmy Anderson, who’s taken more wickets at this venue than anyone else, he had a bowler, perfectly suited to taking advantage of the conditions.
Openers Kuhn and Dean Elgar needed to be tight with their techniques and strong mentally with the ball seaming around. Kuhn was beaten a couple of times by Anderson and the same was the case for Elgar, but it was the latter more experienced of the South African openers who succumbed to the pressure.
Anderson had beaten him outside his off-stump twice in the over before drawing him forward and Elgar pushed hard at the ball, away from his body, edging it towards gully where Liam Dawson, dived high to his right and held a superb catch. Elgar had scored just six.
Anderson became the first bowler to take 300 Test wickets in England
Hashim Amla, averaging just 31 in his last 12 Tests, played solidly and in the process became just the fourth South African batsman to go passed 8000 runs.
The landmark came up with a powerful pull shot off Mark Wood. Jacques Kallis (13206), Graeme Smith (9253) and AB de Villiers (8074) are the other South Africans to have scored 8000 runs.
Former South African skipper Smith, commentating on BBC radio, agreed with Du Plessis’s decision to bat, even while acknowledging it would be difficult in the morning. “You’ve got weigh up if it will be more difficult in the first or fourth innings, and maybe in this case, the divots may harden and the ball could go up and down in that fourth innings, making batting difficult,” said Smith.
While Anderson typically sought to swing the ball, and thus pitched it up to the batsmen, Wood and Broad were perhaps too short and on a slow surface, that gave the batsmen sufficient time to adjust.