A fair to middling opening day to the series all round. South Africa won’t be terribly happy with their total, England won’t be terribly happy with their bowling performance.
If nothing else, it’s set up the rest of the match for anything to happen, for the host’s total is one to get them into the game without being in any way imposing. Equally, England’s ability to fall in a heap with the bat remains undiminished, despite a more patient approach in New Zealand that still resulted in series defeat.
England’s sickness throughout the team dictated at least some of the selection, and Ben Stokes was off the field requiring re-hydration for at least part of the day suggesting he has been suffering the same affliction, adding to what’s been a hard few days for him to say the least.
Two players can be particularly satisfied with their efforts: Quinton de Kock’s counterattack in the middle of the day got South Africa back into the game from a position where they could have disintegrated, while for England Sam Curran was the clear pick of the bowlers. He remains someone upon whom the focus is all too often what he can’t do rather than what he can – he might not be the quickest around, but he does swing it both ways, and does provide control as well. Vernon Philander, for whom this is the last Test series, has never remotely been quick, but he has been an unqualified success at Test level. If Curran were to have a similar impact over his career, he’ll have done alright.
That England had South Africa 111-5 represented their high point of the day. That they failed to take advantage of that position is all too familiar to watchers of England. Sure, illness and the consequent lack of good preparation may be factors in that, but it’s hardly an unusual state of affairs for them to let teams off the hook and today was no different. If there’s one thing that has been abundantly clear over recent years, it’s that a score of around 300 against England is not one that is often shown up to be sub par, and often is enough for a decent lead.
That said, the pitch offered some movement, but it was no minefield either. There’s no reason why England shouldn’t bat decently, except the constant doubt that they are able to put together a big total in any but the most benign circumstances. They have insisted that there is a different batting approach under Chris Silverwood – less helter skelter, more graft – and tomorrow is no bad time to make that obvious.
One constant does remain – despite the extra half hour to compensate for delays, 90 overs still weren’t bowled in the day, with only 82.4 being managed before the close. It is boring to keep highlighting the lack of care or interest from the authorities in enforcing this most basic of requirements, but they could do something about it if they wished, or they could just say what we all think is the reality and that they couldn’t give a stuff. It’s this pretence that 90 is the minimum when it plainly isn’t that grates most of all.
England have one wicket to take in the morning before it’s their turn to bat, and as ever, day two provides a better indication of the direction this match might be taking. After day one, it’s fairly even, albeit England could have had a much better one than they eventually did. Their brittleness with the bat as much as their profligacy with the ball may yet be the decisive factor.