Perhaps the visit to the Gunn and Moore bat factory did the trick. Quentin de Kock and Vernon Philander had trotted down to the historic Nottingham establishment on the eve of the Test match. And they were the two who provided the sparkle and fizz to buoy the South African innings as it had been on the verge of bobbing and sinking.
In the second innings of the first Test Quentin de Kock had been sent ahead of Temba Bavuma. At Trent Bridge, the reins of the team shifted back to Faf du Plessis from the caretaker captain Dean Elgar. However, the returning regular skipper went one step further. This time de Kock came in at No 4, ahead of the captain himself.
It proved to be an inspired move. A logical one too. After all, no one else in the South African line-up averages more than 50 with the bat. Since December last year, even Hashim Amla has come down to the 40s. And one knows that de Kock can take the initiative. For South Africa to turn around in the series, seizing the initiative was the key.
The rain interrupted morning session had seen only one wicket fall. But, the tourists had not really been convincing on a rather easy wicket. Elgar fell early and even as he held on to his wicket, Heino Kuhn was struck on the bottom hand and the helmet. Kuhn’s post-lunch struggle against Stuart Broad came off as rather one-sided. So, when de Kock came in and struck Mark Wood and Liam Dawson for a brace of boundaries each, the pressure was lifted, breathing was easier and for once South Africa looked in the driver’s seat.
Amla was playing with his habitual calm, something rather absent in New Zealand and the first Test. And de Kock was sparkling at the other end. After reaching 50 in just 59 balls, he repeated his brace of boundaries, this time off Ben Stokes. The pull that brought off the second of these was one of the most remarkable of strokes.
And then came the Tea interval.
At 179 for 2, one could have said South Africa was sitting pretty. But, to use a cliché, the break, as it so often does, earned the hosts the breakthrough they were looking for. Adrenaline still flowing in his veins with the fireworks that had taken him to Tea with 68 against his name, he now flashed at the first delivery from Broad and Cook held at slip. The period of promise was over.
All the while Amla had played a composed hand, his constant deflections and nudges interspersed with booming drives, even a straight six off Dawson. But there were nervous moments as well. He edged one of the drives and it did not quite reach Alastair Cook. There were unconvincing pull strokes as well. And with du Plessis joining him at the other end, he played one pull too many and top-edged Broad to deep square-leg.
Returning to the fray after a paternity break, du Plessis took 15 balls to get off the mark. But this sort of start is part and parcel of his game and he soon drilled James Anderson for three boundaries. But Stokes got a feather touch on his glove, so faint that even the batsman felt he had not been anywhere near it. And one must mention that Johnny Bairstow held another of those magnificent leg-side catches that are becoming his signature.
Stokes accounted for Bavuma too, when the batsman could not quite take his bat away in time.
Three quick wickets and the specialist batsmen back in the hutch. It looked like the woes of the first Test had come back to haunt South Africa. Periods of fighting resistance before surrendering the momentum.
However, they were hauled out of trouble by the other man who had visited the bat factory. The injury to his hand, that he had picked up during the late stages at Lord’s, had made the question mark hovering over Philander’s fitness. However, the way he batted today conclusively proves that his hand had recovered. Helped rather magnanimously by the width offered by Stokes, he crashed boundaries regularly, peppering the off-side pickets, bringing off a controlled pull stroke as he neared his fifty.
With Chris Morris, the man who replaced Theunis de Bruyn, putting his head down and batting diligently, it was the Philander fifty that allowed South Africa to end the day on a decent 309 for 6.
Amla did provide the steady balance in the innings, but it was the sparkle of de Kock and later the fizz of Philander that allowed the Proteans to end the day on a relative high. Three fifties in the day still do not seem to camouflage the brittleness of the line-up. The lack of depth was apparent at Lord’s and the wobble in the middle order underlined that the gap has not quite been filled even with de Plessis’s return.
It is definitely a bonus to have a combative batsman like Philander down the order, alongside Morris who has a fair bit of batting credentials. Yet, with the enormous hole left in the line-up due to the extended break of AB de Villiers has hardly been filled, and the tendency to fall apart is still very much palpable.
Besides, every time one looks at the batting card, the tail does set off alarm bells ringing in another direction. There is Morne Morkel, there is Philander. But, with Rabada serving the one-Test ban, the rest of the bowling consists of a sum total of 11 Tests between three specialists.
In summary, it was yet another day much like the first three days at Lord’s, when South Africa showed plenty of spirit to reach beyond their limitations in resources and put up a good fight. But, at the same time, there are indications that it will be another rather difficult Test for them against a side teeming with seasoned pros.