One of the delights about Test cricket is how often the final hour of play proves pivotal, and makes the previous five hours seem pedestrian and unimportant in comparison. It isn’t really like that of course, but day one is a set up day to begin with, and that final hour so often determines which side is the happier, almost irrespective of how things have gone up to that point.
For at drinks in the evening session, England were 224-5, not in trouble as such, but in severe danger of thoroughly wasting the opportunity of batting first. Stokes and Bairstow’s thrilling counter-attack, particularly against the new ball, means that England will be reasonably content with their day’s work, though much more will be needed from them in the morning to turn it into a position of strength.
The day had largely been one of England players getting in and getting out. Only Taylor was dismissed early; Cook was loose once again outside off stump, Hales caught in the slips again off a pretty decent ball, Compton nailed a pull straight to midwicket and Root played a rotten waft outside off stump. If that seems overly harsh, individually it probably is. Hales made his first Test fifty and batted extremely well, Root looked a million dollars and it was a surprise when he got out, and Compton played the number three role well again. Yet for at least three of the top order to perish needlessly risked throwing away what could and should have been a position of dominance. Sometimes these things just happen in the game of cricket, but it looked somewhat careless; the players will know that better than anyone – certainly Root looked about to explode as he left the field.
Compton himself has 179 runs in three innings since his recall, which ought to satisfy anyone. Not withstanding his failure to go on from a start today, he is doing well. Yet the pundits and commentators seem awfully quick to get on his back about his scoring rate. At lunch he was 3* off 27 balls, and it was a topic of conversation. It is hardly unusual for a batsman to start that way, especially so in the run up to a break, and nor is it putting pressure on his batting partner at such a stage. Given his struggles in the Test before he was dropped perhaps that is a legitimate topic of conversation, but the same thing kept cropping up throughout his innings, which was ultimately at the same strike rate as that well known blocker Alex Hales. Nor is this a one off, given how Graeme Swann criticised Compton for slow play in the first Test, where Compton’s first innings knock was not only exactly what England needed, it went a fair way towards England winning the match.
Let’s be clear about this – Compton played a perfectly normal innings for a number three. If it’s going to referred to as “staccato” then do so for other players, not just him – there is an undercurrent of being desperate to criticise for the sake of it.
But the day belonged to Bairstow and Stokes. Their unbroken partnership of 94 came off just 19.1 overs, but it was the new ball that they were particularly severe on, particularly Stokes. At one stage they were scoring at 9 an over, as Amla scattered the field. There’s something to really like about this England team, and it’s the way the younger players respond to adversity by looking to attack. It isn’t always going to come off, and an understanding of what they’re trying to do is needed. That means not slating a batsman who is caught on the boundary for example. It’s high risk but a calculated risk and when it comes off it is both thrilling for the spectator and can completely change the direction of the match. We cannot have it both ways here: we can’t praise players for taking the game by the scruff of the neck and then complain when they get out. Stokes could have been caught in the slips on at least two occasions when the new ball was taken, and mistimed a couple of pulls as well. Yet it doesn’t, or shouldn’t matter – it is a calculated assault that on this occasion worked.
Bairstow played largely the supporting role, but scored not much less quickly. He’s been good this series with the bat, and looks a much more solid player defensively, which bodes well for the longer term.
The big plus for South Africa was the bowling of Kagiso Rabada. He’s clearly raw, but has pace, and the priceless quality of hurrying the batsmen even when the speed gun doesn’t necessarily support that. Joe Root was very late indeed on one attempted pull, and lucky to survive. For such a young bowler his control was decent as well, certainly better than Chris Morris, who Stokes in particular took a considerable liking to. Given the injury crisis afflicting South Africa’s frontline bowlers – and there were suspicions Morkel wasn’t entirely fit by the end of the day – this is a welcome sign of promise.
One other item of business from today: even with the extra half hour, only 87 overs were bowled. This is entirely unacceptable, there were 23 overs of spin in the day, and failing to complete the scheduled allotment is inexcusable. The ICC have shown no kind of inclination to clamp down on what is tantamount to stealing from the paying spectator. Fines clearly don’t work, so there is a need to find what does. Run penalties are sometimes mooted, but there is an understandable reluctance to allow over-rates to impact on the game itself. Yet if there was a ten run penalty for each unbowled over, does anyone really think that South Africa would have failed to get 90 in? They would have made sure of it. Three overs may not seem worth becoming exercised over, but this happens sufficiently often for 85 overs in a day to be considered reasonable.
Enough is enough. The players are showing disrespect to those who pay to watch them.
317-5 is anything but a decisive score; early wickets will leave England some way below what looks like a par score on this surface. But the ball turned for Piedt, suggesting that by days four and five spin could be a weapon, especially since Moeen gives the ball rather more of a rip than his counterpart. In order for that to matter, England will need 400+ to put pressure on the misfiring Proteas batting order.
On balance, England will be the happier team this evening, but that is based more on the way the last hour unfolded than the score itself. Tomorrow is another day and while the first session will not dictate how the Test will unfold, if England win it then they should be in good shape to put South Africa under pressure. For all the plaudits Stokes will rightfully receive, this game is quite finely balanced.
Elsewhere, tonight is the start of the Australia – West Indies annihilation at the SCG. This is nothing but depressing, not because of Australian dominance, but the desperate fall of West Indies cricket. No fan of the game can feel anything but sadness, anger and despair about it.
Day two discussion below.