Before play started it was widely circulated that the injured Wood and Ballance would be replaced by Roland-Jones and Westley. Less certain was the fate of Liam Dawson, who had failed to impress with bat or ball in the previous two games despite being notionally considered England’s “number one spin bowler”. On one hand, the Oval has generally been considered helpful to spinners this season. On the other hand, Lord’s was very helpful to spinners and Dawson didn’t really justify his place in the team there.
That mystery was quickly resolved as Dawid Malan was handed his Test cap by Phil Tufnell in the pre-match huddle. England won the toss and chose to bat first, bringing Cook and Jennings to the crease. Cook started well against Morne Morkel but Keaton Jennings seemed hopelessly out of his depth whilst facing Vernon Philander at the other end. After managing to survive the previous 8 balls, Jennings inevitably edged his ninth ball to Elgar at third slip for a duck.
This brought out the first of England’s three debutants, Tom Westley. He appeared to be more confident and composed than Jennings, perhaps helped by Philander having to leave the field soon after with a “stomach bug”. Content to punish deliveries straying onto his legs, Westley and Cook built a partnership of 52 before a rain shower brought a premature end to the morning session.
Unfortunately after his promising start, Westley fell 4 balls into the session after edging a swinging ball by Chris Morris to du Plessis at second slip. This wicket brought together England’s two most experienced batsmen, Cook and Root. Together they fought against a very strong South African bowling spell, riding their luck at times until Root edged another swinging ball (this was very much the theme of the day) from Philander to de Kock.
England’s second debutant, Dawid Malan, did not seem as confident as Westley did earlier in the day. Malan batted out 14 dot balls before managing a single. Two balls later, he was bowled by a vicious inswinging yorker from Rabada which left Malan sprawled on the floor. Ben Stokes came in at 6, ahead of Jonny Bairstow, and together with Cook managed to last until tea. The tea break was extended due to another rain shower, and after that Cook and Stokes batted out 7 overs before dark clouds and rain brought an end to the day.
So the day ended with England at 171/4 and Alastair Cook unbeaten on 82*, in a prime position to score a vital century for England. Elsewhere in the team, things are looking less rosy. Jennings, Westley and Malan all failed to make decent scores, and will have to bat well in their next three innings to be confident of selection against the West Indies in August. Tomorrow England will hope that Cook, Stokes, Bairstow and Ali can wrest control of the match and take the total over 300, but this was very much South Africa’s day.
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