Well it’s certainly felt like a lifetime after all the white ball shenanigans, but today, the 6th July, the Test season finally started with the symbolic bell being rung at Lords to mark the true start of summer. Both teams came into this Test with question marks around their batting, with bowlers carrying a niggle or two and two new captains aiming to put their individual mark on their respective teams. I don’t think it would be unfair to summise that the only real highlight of the morning as far as England were concerned was that Root won the toss and quite rightly elected to bat on what appeared to be an absolute belter of a pitch; however England managed to make a complete pigs ear of the first session, which again confirmed everyone’s fears around the make up of England’s top order.
In every single Test played in England, it is always imperative to see off the new ball in the first hour and from there batting often tends to get much easier but England completely failed to do this. Jennings might be a tad unlucky as the ball was shown to be pitching outside leg stump and to be fair, Bairstow got a good one; however there was nothing evident in Gary Ballance’s batting to show that he has made the technical tweaks to cope with international fast bowlers. I can understand why he was picked, after all weight of runs in the CC Division 1 should in theory be rewarded; however it does seem that the selectors weren’t exactly enamoured about his selection, this coupled with the fact that he was asked to bat at number 3, which is a surefire way to have your technique tested out, makes no sense at all to me. The fact that he played around a straight delivery reminded me of all the technical difficulties that were exposed by Australia a couple of seasons ago. It may just be that Ballance, like many before him, is too good for the county game but not good enough at Test level, he will certainly feel the heat the longer he is unable to post big runs. My biggest criticism of the morning however, was the shot that the ex-captain and media lovechild played to get out. It was just a lazy waft at a wide delivery that someone who has 30 Test hundreds (yes we are reminded of that every time he walks into bat) should not be playing. Yet we have seen it time and time again as Messer’s Clark and Harris can vouch for in many an Ashes series. The fact that Nasser described the shot as someone who was just in too good form was even more risible than the shot itself; I expect that to be buried in the national newspapers tomorrow.
So at 76-4 on a flat Lord’s deck, England were in more than a spot of bother when Stokes joined the new (and improved) captain at the crease. There was a real chance of being rolled over for under 250, which would have been a complete disaster in the circumstances; however the fortunes of each side completely turned on their heads. South Africa suddenly looked like they had morphed into Pakistan on the field and England decided to play positive but not reckless cricket. The pitch that England’s top order had made to look a minefield suddenly looked anything but that. Stokes played beautifully I thought and just when I was about to praise him to the high heavens, he then got out himself playing a low percentage, high risk shot. Stokes has a beautiful technique and I have absolutely no issue in him playing with a completely positive mindset, but trying to hook a ball with the realistic result of it being a single at most, isn’t particularly smart. Once Stokes tweaks this part of his game (and he has improved dramatically over the last 18 months), then England will have a hell of a player on their hands. Moeen also came in and played a typical Moeen knock full of dreamy drives and the odd misjudgment; however he did look remarkably improved in playing the short ball than he did in the winter (and that caused me to write a large rant about it). It was the perfect counter attack against a tiring South African bowling attack on a very hot day and hopefully he can push on in the morning.
The main praise of course has to go to Joe Root, who despite riding his luck at times played a sublime innings under pressure. There was of course speculation leading up to the game as to whether Root would be able to combine the pressures of captaincy alongside carrying the England batting, as well as the constant annoyance of us and him at his failure to convert 70’s & 80’s into match winning hundreds. We needn’t have worried. After the early let offs, Root played the type of innings that reminds us why he is one of the top four batsmen in the world. His ability to keep the score ticking over, his ability to dispatch both the good and bad deliveries to the boundary and his ability to score all over the wicket means that he must be a nightmare to bowl to, let alone set fields for. It would have been easy for Root to go into his shell and to try and grind out a score with England’s batting in disarray, but that’s not how he plays nor how he wants his team to play and at times it was special to watch. One swallow does not make a summer, but the early prognosis is promising.
As for South Africa, it was great first session and then a sobering experience for the rest of the day. Philander bowled brilliantly in his first spell, accurately probing England’s batsmen with every delivery and fully deserved of his 3 wickets. The success of Philander in international cricket (average of 23 with the ball) should prove a lesson to England amongst others, that you don’t need to have express pace to trouble international batsmen as long as you have the skill to land it on the same spot 6 times an over. I’ve seen many a decent county bowler being dismissed from England’s thinking because they don’t bowl at 85MPH, yet Philander tends to hover around the 78MPH mark and has been highly successful. This should prove as food for thought for the selectors but somehow I don’t think it will. The rest of the day unfortunately proved to be a bit of a horror show for the Proteas, with a reeling England at 76-4 being able to finish the day at 357-5. The Proteas had their foot on England’s throat and then failed to go in for the kill, of course dropping the oppositions best player twice early on is never a strategy that is worth pursuing. This combined with the fact that they bowled two wickets off two no balls, meant that even the most battle hardened South African is likely to be crying into his Castle Lager tonight. To take one wicket off a no ball is reckless, but to take two with the latter being from a spinner is down right criminal. I’m not sure I’d fancy being in the Proteas’ dressing room tonight.
On a couple of last side notes, I fortunately/unfortunately (depending on your point of view) missed the Empty Suit interview at Tea though I’m guessing that it contained lots of buzz words such as ‘engagement’, ‘family friendly’ and ‘new audiences’ with very little actual content. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. And as a final moan, we yet again didn’t complete the full 90 overs in a day and at one point it seriously looked like we might not get many more than 80. This has been a bugbear of all the editors on the blog; however if I’m paying top dollar for 90 overs, then that is exactly what I want, 87 overs simply won’t do. End of.
So on to Day 2, and to see if England can motor towards 500 or whether South Africa can take early wickets with the new ball. Either way, it feels like the first session tomorrow could be pivotal as to the result of the game. Thoughts and Comments below as always: