Normally, when a side has been asked to bowl first and has the opposition six wickets down by stumps with only 260 runs on the board, you’d think the bowling side has won the day, writes GARY LEMKE.
But this is anything but a normal Test series as South Africa battled manfully with a depleted bowling attack for 90 overs of the final Test at Old Trafford. Kagiso Rabada claimed the precious scalp of Ben Stokes right at the end of the day with his second searing yorker of the series – remember the one that uprooted Dawid Malan’s stumps – which brought the rookie all-rounder Toby Roland-Jones to the crease, joining Jonny Bairstow (33).
All that’s left after that are Moeen Ali, Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson.
Why then are the pundits calling it honours even? The bookies have gone a bit further, and despite rain being forecast in Manchester over the coming days, they have England 17-20 favourites to win the match, with the draw second favourite at 5-2 – perhaps that’s the right bet? – and South Africa only at 33-10 to win. I had South Africa winning day one.
It’s because this South African side has had a fragile look to it, from what we have seen over the past couple of months in England. You’d expect that with roles reversed, and if Joe Root had asked the Proteas to bat first after winning the toss and having them 260-6, everyone would be saying it was England’s day.
Rabada, for all his threat and wicket-taking ability, hasn’t quite produced the fireworks expected of him before the series, even though he was ridiculously banned for the second Test after giving Stoles a colourful verbal send-off.
Vernon Philander has been magnificent when he’s bowled, but he’s plainly not fit. He spent time off the field in the first Test at Lord’s with a battered finger, missed large parts of the third Test with a stomach problem, and didn’t start the fourth Test due to a sore back.
Chris Morris is another whose Test experience in England flattered to deceive, a strong display at Trent Bridge being undone by a conveyor belt of pie-chuckers at The Oval, and who also misses the final match at Old Trafford, injured.
Duanne Olivier took his place, and despite going for 3.78 runs an over – over average in the context of the first day’s scoring – took two wickets and showed plenty signs of a bowler to be invested in.
Of course, things are never straightforward when it comes to South Africa.
And despite claims from many quarters that South Africa don’t take too seriously what they read in the media, they do. In this digital and social media age, little slips below their radars.
So, as we head into the second day at Old Trafford, they will also be talking about the rumours doing the rounds that West Indian Ottis Gibson – the England bowling coach – has been head-hunted by Cricket SA to replace Russell Domingo as head coach at the end of the series.
Indeed, what must Domingo be thinking, and what do the players think when a direct opponent is being lined up to be their next coach, in the middle of a match? It’s a sign held up in neon saying, ‘our bowling coach is better than your head coach’. Pretty dispiriting, if you ask me.
However, Jake White led the Springboks to the 2007 Rugby World Cup, despite being told to re-apply for his job at the end of the event, so perhaps Domingo can ‘pull a White’ and produce some special motivation over the weekend.
If the Gibson story has legs, one must also wonder what happened to Geoffrey Toyana’s application, and if CSA wanted a bowling coach to take over the main role, then what about the credentials of Allan Donald, Makhaya Ntini and Vincent Barnes, even if those men didn’t apply. Did Gibson?
Back to the Test. For the fourth successive match, the man winning the toss decided to bat first. No one would have begrudged Root putting South Africa in, under tricky conditions with the ball doing plenty. But he would have seen the team news and reckoned that without Philander and Morris, batting would be easier pickings.
So, to see his team six wickets down at the close with only 260 scored – and Keshav Maharaj, 1-50 in 29 overs, emerging as a name to be put on the team sheet for every match going forward – would not have pleased Root.
As has been the case throughout, plenty of runs have come in the final session of the day. The Proteas will hope to wrap up the tail and have England out for around 320, and then go in to bat and try to bat big. Ordinarily, that would have meant they shaded day one, but the majority of experts reckon this wasn’t the case.
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