260 for 6 after Day One.
A scoreline which indicates an absorbing tussle between the bat and the ball. Especially in contemporary cricket, when run rates in Test matches tend to be rather on the high side.
And it was so. A riveting day, during which the South African bowlers operated thoughtfully. Alastair Cook, Joe Root and Ben Stokes, the big two and the feared third of the batting line up, settled down and built excellent platforms for big scores. The latter two got half-centuries, the former just missed his. But, the Proteans kept striking back just in time to keep the match in the balance.
Cook drove a trifle loosely at Keshav Maharaj to nick behind, Root shimmied down the track and tried to work the Duanne Olivier ball to the on side to be trapped leg-before, and Stokes was done in by the ball of the game so far, a signature Kagiso Rabada swinging yorker in the dying moments of the day.
Thus, no side was able to pull ahead and it does make for delicious anticipation for the morrow when James Anderson will become the first Test bowler ever to run in from an end named after him.
However, even though the day could hardly be bettered in terms of a balanced contest, if one looks back at the action, beyond the thrills of the clashing swords, one tends to notice a few empty scabbards quivering in the wind. Yes, there were excellent performers for both sides this day, but they had to work doubly hard to cover for the blatant weaknesses that exist alongside.
With South Africa it was understandable. The injury problems of Vernon Philander have left them a bowler short. Morne Morkel, Rabada, Maharaj … and to a lesser extent Olivier … did try to step up and cover the gap, but Philander’s absence is a major chasm and not easy to fill up. Thenuis de Bruyn, a batsman with 8 First-Class wickets in 41 matches, was asked to take on the role of a fifth bowler. While the inclusion of de Bruyn can indeed boost the rather shaky and inconsistent batting line up of the Proteans, his benign slow medium pacers did little more than providing the regular four with five overs of rest.
This is quite a shortcoming for the South Africans because Philander had been their most incisive bowler in the series as well as a solid contributor with the bat down the order. However, this gap was perhaps balanced by the fissure in the English batting that we have been harping about in these pages for some time now.
Keaton Jennings was persisted with. And his struggles continued. There was no Philander to give him a thorough working over this time, but that did not really help matters. He got 17 and then kept his willow hanging outside the off-stump to provide a nick off Olivier. This was after quite a few escapes along the similar lines.
The search for the English opener to partner Cook continues. Jennings will probably get one more knock against South Africa. After that, whoever it is who is chosen to open with Cook, Jennings or another man, will be facing the relatively docile West Indian bowlers for the rest of the summer. Success against the men from the Caribbean can be very misleading, and there is a fair chance that the opening combination for the forthcoming Ashes will be based on this inaccurate indicator.
It would have probably made sense for England to try and blood a new opener, given that Jennings was not only failing but was being comprehensively toyed with by Philander and Morkel. Surprisingly, the Durham man has been persisted with.
Tom Westley did not get too many, but he did look determined and solid, as he had done on debut at The Oval. But doubts persist about Dawid Malan’s credentials at this level. He did put in a lot of graft and hard work to get to 18 before throwing it away with a loose stroke as Morkel angled a ball across him. And that is why, in spite of the unquestionable class of Cook and Root in the top order, and the promise of Westley, there remain two gaping holes which make the top order less than brilliant.
Yes, Stokes is a great man to come in at No 6, and Johnny Bairstow and Moeen Ali form a lower middle order that is the envy of world cricket. But, the slots of the specialist batsmen are still far from being settled.
And hence, excellent spells by Morkel, the moments of magic from Rabada, the solidity of Cook, the magical class of Root as he went past 5000 Test runs, the beefy belligerence of Stokes … all that was on view. There was a comic moment as well when the perennially brilliant Quentin de Kock somehow did not go for a regulation catch offered by Root.
It had been a brave decision on Root’s part to bat first after several days of wet weather, and it made for some thoroughly absorbing cricket. How the conditions vary during the next four days will have a definite say in the outcome of the match.
Yet, a great day of competitive cricket left us with a tiny feeling of dissatisfaction. Even as the mighty swords clashed against each other there were some unconvincing jangles from the clatter of toy soldiers.