Eng v SA

Published on July 28th, 2017 | by Arunabha Sengupta

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Gaps visible even on a gloomy, cloudy day

The England batting line-up is a tale of a couple of giants balancing out a confederacy of midgets.

Well, that can read a trifle harsh. But harshness hardly stops it from ringing true.

Keaton Jennings, the man who started his Test career with a hundred and a fifty in his first couple of Tests in India, had managed 44 in four innings in the current series. Today, it stayed 44 while the innings counter clicked forward by one. The way Vernon Philander toyed with him, making him use his bat like a blind man’s staff, before getting him to edge to third slip, does seem to indicate that Jennings’s days as the England opener are becoming increasingly numbered.

The first debutant in the lineup, Tom Westley, did play decently enough to hit 25. There were some crisp boundaries during his stint. But then the lunch interval seemed to upset his concentration. At the same time, we need to remember that most of his runs were gathered in the absence of Philander, who had to retire after just four overs with a problematic stomach.

The second middle order man making his debut, the Middlesex stalwart Dawid Malan, emerged at No 5. This was after Philander had returned to action and bowled a magnificent delivery that captain Joe Root had been forced to play at. Quentin de Kock, changing the direction of movement, at full stretch and one handed, had held the fast travelling edge.

Root had scored 190 in his first innings as captain, 78 in the first innings at Trent Bridge.  This time he fought hard, with the former captain Alastair Cook for company. The two giants did all they could to balance out the rest of the batting with their statistically challenging careers. But then Philander produced his moment of brilliance. The young skipper trudged off and sat disconsolately in the dressing room as the 29-year-old debutant Malan proceeded to dwell in his period of uncertainty.

Curious isn’t it? England are playing three debutants in this Test, one of them a fast-medium bowler in the form of Toby Roland-Jones. And the youngest of these three is 28, and he is not the fast-medium bowler. Perhaps that is indicative of some malaise in the assembly line of talent and the selectors may do well to take heed.

Anyway, Malan can be a rather busy player when he bats for Middlesex. Today he struggled for 16 balls in which he managed just a single. For his 17th delivery, he received an unplayable dipping yorker from the freshly-back-in-side-after-suspension Kagiso Rabada.

Three batsmen with experience amounting to 4 Tests among the top five. Cook and Root are two of the greatest English batsmen produced in the past few decades. But, can they cover for all the inadequacy and inexperience of the rest of the men?

It is not always possible for the two best batsmen to fire on the same day. Cook defended his wicket with characteristic limpet-like qualities. But Root did not manage to play another gem here. And hence, on this rain interrupted day, with just 44 overs bowled, England tottered at a rather precarious 120 for 4.

The gaps were yawningly visible even in the gloomy light of the dark London day.

Thereafter the rain continued to come back in its irritating manner. Ben Stokes demonstrated character as he batted with grim determination to remain unbeaten on 21 at the end of the day, with just one boundary to show for his efforts. Cook, calm and unhurried, was on 82 when they went off the field for the final time. So, the hosts ended the day at a marginally more respectable 171 for 4.

However, the brittleness of the batting had been exposed, rather brutally. With Stokes, Johnny Bairstow, Moeen Ali and even Stuart Broad, the side bats down to No 9. However, as stated frequently in these pages during the Trent Bridge Test, the job of getting runs needs to be performed by the specialist batsmen and not thrust as key responsibility area upon the clutch of all-rounders.

Yes, it is a relief to see Stokes batting at No 6 and Moeen Ali and Johnny Bairstow still lower. It had been the policy to bring them up the order through the last few Tests, pretending to be loaded with batsmen, in a curiously contrived way of creating illusory balance in the side. Yes, it is a relief to see genuine specialist batsmen taking guard from Nos 1 to 5, something an England side had never done since August 2016.

But the choice of the top order men to augment the efforts of Root and Cook seem to be questionable. Or perhaps the selectors do not really have a choice. In any case, two genuinely established batsmen and three wet behind the ears newcomers cannot be the right combination for any top order.

In contrast, the South African bowling, with the return of Rabada, looked quite formidable. Morne Morkel was a tad expensive and too short before lunch, but Philander was superb whenever he could bowl. Rabada took his time to get in his groove, and after lunch, both he and Morkel were particularly impressive.  Keshav Maharaj was perhaps introduced way too early and got hammered in his first over, but when he came back he bowled a tight line, giving nothing away.

The first day has definitely gone the Protean way. And out on the field as well as on paper they look a more balanced and confident side. With the weather predicted to be favourable across the next four days, one does tend to see the visitors gaining ascendancy.

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About the Author

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Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and the author of Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets @senantix.



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