Pancakes. Flounders. Spare tyres. None of these things are as flat and soft as the pitch this Test is being played on in Port Elizabeth.
The bounce has been slow, restricting both scoring and wicket-taking opportunities, and there’s been virtually no sideways movement to trouble the batsmen. All of which made Joe Root’s decision to bat after winning the toss this morning a very simple one. You do have to feel sorry for du Plessis though, because this marks the sixth consecutive toss he has lost for South Africa. With the ability to bat first often being crucial in Test cricket, it’s no surprise that South Africa are on such a poor streak of form.
The first two sessions were a pretty turgid affair, like the pitch. South Africa were mainly ‘bowling dry’ *shudder* whilst England were slowly accumulating runs. Sibley and Crawley both eventually fell to mistimed clips which were caught by leg slip/gully, but losing just two wickets before Tea is still a welcome sign of progress for this England Test team. They are normally well into their tail by then.
Things livened up just after Tea, with Denly and Root falling in relatively quick succession. Root’s wicket in particular will interest England’s bowlers, because he was bowled by a ball which appeared to stay noticeably lower compared to other deliveries on a similar length. Stokes weathered a spell of strong bowling from Rabada and Maharaj, including several unsuccessful appeals, before settling down with Pope to see out the day with England finishing on 224-4.
One thing which has been enormously fun to see on Twitter is the suggestion (by idiots and trolls, mostly) that England’s top order have been scoring too slowly. This is very much a luxury problem, because English batsmen in recent times typically haven’t been at the crease long enough for people to worry about such things. To put this in context: This winter, England have lost their fifth wicket in their first inning for over 200 runs three times in the last five Tests. That’s the same number as they managed in the previous fifteen Tests over three seasons. This England top order, since the dropping of Roy and Bairstow, has been consistently scoring runs.
The key word here is ‘consistently’. Whilst it has been frustrating to see so many English batsmen fail to reach fifty, there have been far fewer collapses this winter than we England fans have become accustomed to. This has been especially important since England’s tail, particularly their non-Stokes allrounders, haven’t been scoring heavily with the bat recently. In 2019, England’s batsmen from 7-11 collectively averaged 13.96. That’s the first year since 2013 in which they’ve averaged less than 20, and their lowest average since 2006. England can no longer rely on their bowlers bailing them out with the bat, and so I think that this new-found cautious approach from the specialist batsmen is both warranted and welcome.
On our usual side note, South Africa actually managed to bowl all 90 overs in a day. With so few wickets and boundaries, and spin bowler Maharaj bowling a third of the overs, they actually managed to finish a few minutes early.
90 overs bowled, England comfortably batting out a full day. I could get used to this…
As always, comments on the game or anything else you fancy are welcome below.