One minute down, next minute up
Test cricket has often driven comparisons with life which makes it a fascinating form of sport. The first day’s play of the fourth Test between South Africa and England in Johannesburg justified those parallels perfectly.
At first, chances of any play on Day 1 looked bleak due to inclement weather. Joe Root, in fact, went back to the team hotel along with Jos Buttler. The duo came back only when the rain stopped and proceedings to get the ground ready for play got underway. The first session was won by the raingods.
Joe Root won the toss for the fourth time in this four-match series. Faf du Plessis lost it for the seventh time in a row in Test cricket narrowing in on Nasser Hussain's record of losing 10 consecutive tosses. But for a change, one would think that du Plessis wouldn’t mind losing the toss since making a decision was tricky. No one would want to bat last pinned 1-2 down in the series. On the other hand, batting first would also be a vexed decision under the overcast conditions at a venue 6,000 feet above sea level with a history to aid seam movement.
Root elected to bat first. Faf said he would have bowled first anyway. However, the South African bowlers did not support his statement with a sluggish bowling display in the first session. They had to little to challenge the England openers.
After playing first couple of overs cautiously, Zak Crawley unleashed his off-side strokeplay in the form of exquisite drives. As flawless as those drives seemed, there was a touch of derision of playing his shots with clarity in the first hour of the Test match, which was impressive for a youngster who was dismissed driving the ball in the preceding Test match. Dominic Sibley, on the other hand, kept playing to his strength of wearing the ball down and scoring a boundary whenever the ball was pitched short and wide or around his legs.
With not much lateral movement on offer, the Proteas looked too timid in the opening session for a side which had boosted their attack with an additional fast bowler at the cost of their premier spinner, Keshav Maharaj. Was that an effect of Kagiso Rabada’s absence who was restricted to watching proceedings from the sidelines by a suspension from the ICC?
Sibley and Crawley strolled their way to a fifty-run stand before the first drinks break. The only hiccup in their way was when Sibley slashed a wide delivery from Philander to Temba Bavuma at gully. However, the joy of the home side was limited when they realized that the veteran bowler had overstepped.
By the end of the session, the duo had added 100 runs for the first wicket - England’s first 100-run opening stand since December, 2016. Crawley had brought up the maiden fifty of his career. Interestingly, each of the five Test innings so far has been bigger than the previous one. Fair to say, the second session was won by England.
Looking hopelessly out of the game before Tea, South Africa turned the tables around in the last session of the day. Debutant Beuran Hendricks drew first blood for the home side by strangling Sibley down the leg-side. Wicket-keeper and the newly appointed ODI captain, Quinton de Kock, played his part by diving to his left to complete the catch.
One brings two and South Africa soon struck again with the first ball of Philander’s third spell. The veteran pacer used the bounce in the track, pitching the ball at back-of-a-length coupled with subtle away movement, to catch Crawley in two minds about leaving the ball or playing at it. In the end, it was an anti-climatic end to the youngster’s knock as the innings which was based on clarity of strokeplay was ended by utter confusion and he departed for 66 handing an easy catch to Rassie van der Dussen at first slip.
South Africa further strengthened their position by dismissing Denly 34 runs later. Batting on 27 after being dropped twice - a sensational one-handed effort by Pieter Malan and then a sitter dropped by Dwaine Pretorius - Denly was neither forward nor back to Dane Paterson’s back-of-a-length delivery to hand van der Dussen his second catch of the innings.
Less than three overs later, the home side got another reason to rejoice seeing the back of Ben Stokes when he played a loose drive, only to edge the ball to van der Dussen again at first slip.
In less than 16 overs post Tea, South Africa came roaring back into the game by taking four wickets - one each for Hendricks, Philander, Paterson and Nortje - for 57 runs. The third session was won by South Africa.
In a baffling batting display where England lost the advantage they had attained in the previous session, there were a couple of batting records for them. Stokes scored his 1000th Test run against South Africa while England became the first side to complete half a million Test runs when they reached the score of 186, thankfully for them, without losing any further wickets.
Root and Ollie Pope batted with mixed aggression playing the ball on its merit. Meanwhile, the Proteas did not take their foot off the paddle. Hendricks, South Africa’s best bowler today on his first day of Test cricket, bowled a terrific bouncer to Pope, which the right-hander swayed away in an exemplary manner showing the pro-side of keeping one's eyes transfixed on the ball.
The close of play was triggered by bad light minutes before the scheduled close of play. As Root and Pope left the field in the middle of the 55th over amidst boos from the crowd, du Plessis was seen in a lengthy discussion with the umpire, most probably about their decision to call off the day’s play.
On a truncated day’s play where the pendulum swung between the two sides and the weather, the Test match seems nicely set up for the next four days given the raingods don’t intervene again.