South Africa finish the day 205 runs ahead. England made 205. 15 wickets fell on the day. It hasn’t been a great day for the new Root England, but it isn’t, if we are being really truthful with ourselves, a massive shock. England’s batting is brittle. England don’t seem to cope well with any first innings score of 300+ on the board. We can look at how we play, and we can look at reactions under pressure, but this England team seem perfectly fine batting first at home. We don’t seem perfectly fine chasing a game.
What we do have is turbo-charged cricket which seems to be advancing test cricket matches so that it would be a massive surprise if this game goes to Day 5, and less of a surprise if it finished tomorrow. This may give Bungalow Graves and his Empty Suit more encouragement for their Shiny Toy backed idiocy, but where I am sitting, it looks like a massive drop in the quality of play. Batting has become a pursuit of having a good time at the crease, and not a long time. Joe Root, a man for all seasons, set the equal fastest half-century by an England test captain, but his support consisted of a doughty but not ground-breaking 20-odd by Gary Ballance, and a sketchy old knock by Johnny Bairstow.
England’s 205 was pathetic, even given the conditions which assisted the bowlers, but with an attack that saw Maharaj take three wickets on a pitch that does not assist the spinners, Chris Morris and Duanne Olivier looked, for long periods, to be out of sorts, this has to be nothing but a bitter disappointment. Philander and Morkel are a very good opening pair when in rhythm and on a wicket that assists (or with appropriate conditions). This happens too often these days, and while for many years England’s modus operandi was being hard to beat, now it seems to be self-destruction.
And yet the day started so well. The remaining four wickets were taken in very short order and Jimmy Anderson recorded his seventh five wicket haul and 309 for 6 turned in to 335 all out. That was something to put the spring in our steps, and no doubt delight our Antipodean friend who thinks Jimmy is not all his record is cracked up to be.
The momentum, such as it was, came to a shuddering halt in the space of two deliveries. Cook prodded forward to Philander, and while I was wondering if he was LBW, the Proteas were claiming a catch. Cook had indeed nicked it on to his pad, and de Kock had, indeed, held the chance. As if this wasn’t a big enough blow, Keaton Jennings followed the ball after as he nicked off to Morkel. Interesting that the commentators said it was a ball that would have got most out – defensive failings are quite often explained away. That’s four single figure scores out of seven test innings. Early days in his career, but there is no doubt he’s not locked in yet.
Root and Ballance kept South Africa at bay in different ways. Ballance pays for not having a style that is easy on the eye. I’m sure that makes up part of the almost hysterical “he’s not up to it” I see on Twitter. He may not be, but we’d just seen the two openers ripped out in no time, and it’s time to lay it on Ballance. He’s not set at three, but good grief, this isn’t the time to go mad about him. He saw off the attack and then fell after lunch. As I said, no-one is going to pay to watch Ballance play test cricket, but there seem to be a lot of very critical people on his case.
Root’s skittish innings was in large parts genius, and large parts reckless. He seemed to convey an attitude that the only way to get back into the game was to take risks, be aggressive and cash in. He’s a top top player. Joe Root can do that. Mere human cricketers aren’t so good at it. YJB managed to make 45, but it was all over the place. He has that charming knack at this stage of riding his luck and contributing (he did at Lord’s last Sunday) so long may it continue!
When Root was dismissed with the score on 143, the last seven wickets contributed just 62 more. That’s garbage. It was put into some context with South Africa’s 75 for 1 second innings, and trouble is in store. Unless England come up with a miracle, they will be chasing 300+ in the final innings, and we all know how tough that is.
The dismissal that may raise most eyebrows was Moeen Ali’s. A very loose drive, uppish, to a man placed there precisely for that shot, is the sort that infuriates us armchair pundits and some of the media corps. But it is what it is. Moeen is there to counter-punch, and it has worked before. His profligacy was accentuated by the tail contributing next to nothing. It’s how he plays.
I have to say watching Philander bowl was fascinating. He has those virtues of line and length, and the ability to keep a batsman honest. He took just two wickets, but he removed our two most defensive players. He will be a tough man to play in the second innings, and the suspicion is that he is nowhere near fully fit.
So, it looks very much like we will be all square going into the Oval test. If it isn’t, we’ll have a ton to write about.
RIP to the five overs lost today. They will be deeply mourned by the punters pockets, and placed in a communal grave by the authorities who give the square root of fuck all about that.
Comments on Day 3 below. Chris will be on the decks tomorrow.