A huge turnaround in the final two sessions on day one means the Proteas batsmen will be up against it, writes GARY LEMKE.
With England winning the toss and understandably batting on a pitch that offered no demons, but began to get a bit ‘up and down’ later in the day, it was the South Africans who made the first big statement of the four-Test series.
Vernon Philander in particular, stuck his hand up, taking three wickets in the opening session to have England teetering on 82-4 at lunch. With Joe Root on 33 and Ben Stokes on 4, the door was not just ajar, but a big size 11 boot had kicked it open.
However, South Africa were left to rue two further sessions in which Root marched on to an imperious unbeaten 184 – currently the fourth-highest score by an Englishman making his captaincy debut – while Stokes and Moeen Ali helped themselves to fifties, leaving the hosts on 357-5 at the close.
Honours went from being strongly in South Africa’s favour after the first session, still in their favour at tea (182-4), before 175 runs were plundered in the final session of the day, which tilted the scales towards the hosts.
The entire day was actually a microcosm of South Africa’s entire tour of England so far, across all three formats. They have looked look very good in parts, but have been undone by some average fielding, ordinary batting and captaincy that has been less than inspiring.
Philander was by some distance the pick of the bowlers, but he and Morne Morkel sent down 16 overs each, while Dean Elgar made Kagiso Rabada – the fastest bowler on display – the workhorse, with 23 overs seeing him average 4.08 runs to the over.
Rabada was unlucky to have not got Root twice, the first time when substitute fielder Aiden Markram made a schoolboy error of judgment and saw the ball on the fine leg fence drop over his head for a one bounce four, and JP Duminy let a ball through his hands at point. Plus, Morkel and Keshav Maharaj twice got their man, only to have them recalled because of front-foot no-balls.
All these blunders will have contributed to putting pressure on a South African batting line-up that is without Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers when they take to the crease later on Friday.
At lunch it looked as through 280 would be a very good total for England, but now 400 is in sight, which means that South Africa’s first target will be 200 to avoid the follow-on – not that captains in the modern era generally opt to enforce them.
Suddenly, South Africa’s poor performance in the field – two wickets were lost to no-balls and there were those two missed catches – will be haunting them and putting pressure on an untested batting line-up.
That pressure has now shifted from England to South Africa, who will also be batting last on a Lord’s pitch that might deteriorate a bit more than we’ve been used to seeing, given the turn that Keshav Maharaj got, and the occasional up-and-down movement.
Now, when South Africa go in to bat, there will be a lot of chatter from the close fielders, which will add to the pressure and the occasion, being a Lord’s first Test. Obviously, there is plenty left in this Test match and things can change in a session.
But, you have to concede that South Africa’s bowlers missed a trick after starting out so well, and the batsmen – some of whom weren’t entirely convincing on tour up to now – will have to stick their hands up to avoid letting this game get away from them.
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