This would have been a coin toss that Faf du Plessis was happy to lose, because he too would have taken the decision to bat first, writes GARY LEMKE.
But, throughout a stop-start opening day at The Oval, batting was never easy. The rain clouds hovered throughout, forcing the players off three times before the fourth occasion signalled stumps after 59 overs. Instead of getting better to bat on a traditionally run-friendly Oval pitch, the bowlers were always in the game.
By the end of proceedings, England were on 171 for 4 and the experts reckoned it was a case of honours even. Perhaps it was, because, in the face of some high-class seam and fast-medium bowling, it could have been a whole lot worse for the hosts.
It could also have been a whole lot better for South Africa. One has to go back a long way to recall the last time the ball beat the bat, either swinging late or nipping off a pitch that showed some tinges of green and offered plenty of bounce.
There was one particular spell, after lunch had been taken, where England captain Joe Root could only smile at Morne Morkel, a number of deliveries proving impossible to score off. In fact, so bogged down did Root become that after racing to 26 off 28 balls, he scored only three in his next 28, before Vernon Philander had him caught behind by Quinton de Kock with a delivery that opened the batsman up like a jam jar.
De Kock also played a big role in finishing that innings, with a ball that Root looked to play to the leg side, but which squared him up, took the outside edge and flew low to De Kock’s right, forcing him to re-adjust and take a screamer.
It was a catch that counted, as he and Cook had put on 49 for the third wicket and showed an appetite for sticking around. De Kock had a patchy day behind the stumps, and the seven byes conceded were the result of balls that burst through the gloves.
At the close, given that there had been only 59 overs on a truncated day, the TV analysts reckoned that the game hadn’t moved on. That might seem to be the case, but this comment comes in a world where things have speeded up and someone like Kevin Pietersen reckons Test cricket should be a match played over four days.
The fact is that four England top-order wickets have fallen for less than 200, and should South Africa snare another one or two in the first session on Friday they are suddenly in the box seat. Especially given that the pitch looks like it might be a batsman’s paradise on the third and even fourth days.
The Proteas will be looking to restrict England to between 300 and 350 and then bat big. That would be the plan – but conversely, should Alastair Cook ease to his 31st Test century, and the likes of Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali and even Stuart Broad get going, then South Africa will be the ones on the back foot.
One can only speculate what might have happened had Philander bowled more, given that he was off the field for an extended time due to an upset stomach. He was also out of the attack for long periods in the first Test at Lord’s, after a ball had struck him on the hand while batting, although X-rays showed no permanent damage.
To say things are nicely poised, is an understatement, but from what we have seen so far it’s a fine battle between bat and ball, and that old cliche holds firm: One needs to see what a good score is after both teams have batted on this pitch.
For me though, the third day on Saturday is going to be one for the batsmen and Friday’s second day will be about jockeying for position to see who is in the frame to make the best of Saturday. For now, this looks like a proper Test pitch.
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