In as far as England have been competitive over the last few years, it’s generally been on the back of the bowling attack resurrecting hopes despite modest batting performances. It is because of those mediocre batting displays that the bowling attack having an off day intensifies the outcome because of a lack of runs in the previous innings, or a lack of anticipated runs in the one to come. The running joke has always been that England respond to batting failures by dropping a bowler, a gag that has more than some basis in truth.
England’s total of 269 was disappointing, again, but the response from the bowlers was enough to dig England out of the hole of their own making, and while some of the South African wickets were every bit as self-inflicted as in England’s innings, that shouldn’t mean the efforts of the attack need be overlooked or diminished. There is a notable difference between the negative tactic of bowling dry that England revert to all too often, and one of pressurised containment adopted today. All of the bowlers were tight, hard to score off, while carrying a threat throughout. Stuart Broad was outstanding early on, threatening to rip through the top order in his customary way when it’s a Stuart Broad Day, ultimately denied when on a roll by a big overstep that cancelled out a cheap dismissal of Rassie Van Der Dussen who went on to score 68. Umpires failing to call no balls has become a significant issue in Test cricket, and at least a dozen examples of unpunished breaching of the line were cited around the period in which the wicket was overturned. Where responsibility lies for this is an open question – clearly the bowler is prime villain as he needs to keep some part of his foot behind the line, but failing to call them unless a wicket falls is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. It is true that there is greater scrutiny by television, but it seems like umpires are more reluctant to call them in the first place. The outcome is that no one benefits, which is why it’s hard to comprehend the lack of concern or action by the authorities for something that’s a fairly easy fix.
If asking the umpires to call the no balls is not going to happen, then divesting that responsibility to a third umpire seems the obvious solution. Bowlers could help themselves by abiding by the line in training, rather than practicing no balls, something they appear to do despite pleadings from the Test arena to the village nets. But the game too could ensure the law is enforced, and is failing to do so. Watching a third umpire endlessly replaying whether a fielder has touched the boundary rope while utterly ignoring a simple facet of cricket is a wholly unnecessary frustration.
Of the other bowlers, James Anderson looked far more like himself in this innings than at Centurion, and perhaps his rustiness there should have been forgiven more than it was. Either way, here was a threat, especially against the tail late on. Both he and Broad were economical without being wasteful of the ball or negative in line, which forever makes it a puzzle that they don’t bowl like this all the time. It is always churlish to criticise a pair with a thousand Test wickets between them, but the suspicion that they could have been even better with a greater willingness to go for runs is far from a fringe view.
Of the support bowlers, Stokes was relatively indifferent, but made up for that with four outstanding catches (and a couple of drops, difficult chances though they were) in the slip cordon. The difference it makes to any team when the close fielders pull off the kinds of snaffles that he routinely does is immense, and something England have been lacking recently. But it was Sam Curran and Dom Bess who were the relatively unsung heroes – in the former case because he appears to be one of those players who makes things happen. His dismissal of Quinton De Kock was a superb change of pace that made the left hander look rather silly as he sliced it up in the air. Many a batsman will have winced seeing someone be so thoroughly outwitted – it never looks good.
As for Bess, he bowled tightly and with discipline, and if he didn’t particularly turn the ball, then on a day two surface that shouldn’t be held against him. What it did do though was allow the seamers to be rotated while he ensured control – a highly promising performance if he can maintain it. He tied down Dean Elgar to the point that on 88, he had a horrendous swipe at one outside off stump and was caught at long off, departing the play distraught at his error. In such cases it is a mix of a bowler earning the wicket and the batsman throwing it away, any observer can decide where they sit on that scale. Berating the top scorer for getting out is a common pastime, but it did look the kind of mistake enough to cause hair to be torn out by team mates and supporters alike.
The match is relatively even after two days, with England perhaps slightly the ascendant; a tribute to England’s bowling today, and the often comedy batting of both sides. Weak batting line ups can make for entertaining viewing, but the mooted suggestion of four day Tests isn’t going to be harmed by the inability of either of these sides to bat properly. The suspicion that this series is going to be won by the least inept batting won’t go away.
South Africa will go into day three 54 behind with just two wickets remaining. If the wickets fall quickly, that’s a decent lead for England, if the tail can close to within 20, it is of little relevance. South Africa might have to bat last, but England have to bat next, knowing one more collapse will cost the series. It is indicative of where we are that followers of both teams have sufficiently little faith in their batting that they all fear the worst. But today was an enjoyable watch, in itself that is welcome.