There is always romanticism in cricket.
How else can one describe James Anderson running in from an end just recently named after him and trapping Dean Elgar leg before with his very third ball?
He did not only quite stop at that. Temba Bavuma was bowled shouldering arms. Faf du Plessis was castled off an inside edge. And Theunis de Bruyn was caught in the slips off one that straightened. Three quick wickets to the local hero, the crowd delirious with excitement. The man who can claim to be the rightful Lancashire heir of Brian Statham did enjoy a dream spell in the afternoon.
And romanticism invariably wants to bend the course of events into a colourful rainbow of delight. Hence, even though the figures 15-4-33-4 look brilliant enough, one glances at the sorry South African scorecard of 220 for 9 and calculates. One wicket left. One wicket for a fifer. James Anderson has never taken a five-for at his home-ground in Test cricket. Will the start of the next day complete this fairy-tale in the most fitting of fashions?
Anderson’s, however, was not the only start that seemed to be scripted in happy dreams. Toby Roland-Jones, after that magnificent debut, began by sliding one down the leg-side. And Hashim Amla nudged it straight to Johnny Bairstow. The wicketkeeper, who made 99 priceless runs and then dived and slid in the outfield like the wicketkeeping equivalent of Rene Higuita, caught it with plenty of glee.
Amla has been one of the most difficult batsmen to dislodge in world cricket for more than a decade, and the rookie bowler has got him three times in three innings.
And this is where romanticism needs to be reined in and the disturbing face of reality needs to be looked at.
Amla is the purist’s dream, a classical batsman with a game that sends the most romantic of old fashioned cricket followers drooling, all of them, even the biggest sticklers for straight bat and perfect technique. Amla seems to have the ideal game for every situation, a game that is immune to the touch of time, a game that can continue for ever and ever.
And we would be happy if it were so.
There is yet another innings in this Test match. And Amla will probably get the chance to redeem himself. But the facts, as they stand now, show us that he has managed runs at 35.14 in this series. Not disastrous, but certainly not what is expected from the bulwark of South African batting. Especially with AB de Villiers absent from the line-up.
Not only that. This happens to be the sixth straight overseas tour when Amla’s bat has been less than eloquent. His last successful series away from home was way back in Sri Lanka, 2014. Since then, his returns in Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, India, Australia, New Zealand and now England have been extremely mediocre. The last 17 away Tests over three years have got him 632 runs at 24.30 and he has not hit a hundred. These figures are alarming.
It is even more worrying that he has got out after getting settled. Today, this happened for the fourth time on this tour. Amla is a batsman who thrives on cumulative concentration and enjoys playing long, long innings. When he bats over an hour, looks good and times his strokes, and then suddenly gets dismissed due to an apparent loss of concentration, it means that his biggest asset is deserting him. Especially today, while many of the experts believed that he was enjoying the best batting conditions anyone would get in the Test, he found a rather unusual way to get out.
With the Test playing future of de Villiers uncertain, it is rather unsettling to discover this growing problem in Amla’s game. One hopes for the sake of South African cricket that he manages to iron out these difficulties, proving them to be temporary, and gets back into his usual run-scoring ways soon.
It was only in Nottingham that the South African batting clicked as a fully functioning unit. In the rest of the series they have been an inconsistent lot, and that is the main reason why they are behind in the series.
Heino Kuhn battled long today, but managed just 24 in the end. Du Plessis also got in to score 27 before getting in the way of an inspired Anderson spell. Bavuma looked good, and the South African management, at last, got their act right by sending him at No 4, but he also found himself at the wrong end of the Anderson spell. He did get 46, but did not manage to make it more substantial.
Quentin de Kock, coming in at the more comfortable No 6, fought long and hard for 24. Yet none of these men went ahead to play a really long innings. And that plagued the Proteans. If Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel had not got those useful runs for the 9th wicket, things would have looked even worse.
The absorbing opening day has unfortunately given way to another rather one sided show. As pointed out yesterday, England do have their problems in the top order. But the issues with the Protean batting run way deeper. Besides, the England bowling is visibly superior. Hence, it is no surprise that Joe Root’s men find themselves on top at the moment and it will take some phenomenal South African performance to change that.