So that’s what fight looks like. The word has been used so liberally by the South Africans throughout this series that it seemed they had forgotten what it meant, writes DANIEL GALLAN.
In Centurion they fought and won against a wounded opponent. In Cape Town the fight only manifested as counter-punches off the back foot. In Port Elizabeth it came in the form of tame swipes from the canvas.
Here, at the Bull Ring, the scene of many famous scraps in the past, the Proteas ignited their fire and fought back from a hopeless position to one of real strength. From staring at a scorecard that read 107 for no loss, South Africa bagged four wickets for 85 runs before bad light stopped play.
Now the scorecard reads 192-4 and Faf du Plessis will feel a lot better than he did when Zak Crawley and Dominic Sibley were making batting look easy.
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Both openers are imposing figures. Crawley a long, spindly man-child who takes massive strides when on the drive. Sibley is a hulking unit aptly nicknamed ‘The Fridge’. On a Wanderers track neutered by the rain and a morning under cover, South Africa rarely tested with the new ball.
Vernon Philander, playing his last Test for his country, and Beuran Hendricks, playing his first, found lateral movement off the seam. But too many balls were comfortably left outside off-stump. Neither Englishman is the flash-away-from-the-body sort and remained disciplined. When the ball was overpitched or too straight, those imposing figures leaned forward and sent it careening to the fence.
There were very few plays and misses. There were no edges that dropped short or flew over slip within touching distance. Hendricks thought he had Sibley caught down the leg side in the seventh over, but the review showed the ball did not make contact with the bat. Sibley survived again, this time caught off a no-ball from Philander.
Anrich Nortje hit Crawley on the head before the session break and there were signs that the pitch was waking up, but the English duo reached the interval at 100 for no loss – the first century stand for the first wicket here in 11 years.
There must have been something in the South African tea pot. They came out with renewed vigour and found a shorter length. Now the openers couldn’t get forward so comfortably.
‘We had a chat and told ourselves that we were better than what we bowled in the first session,’ Hendricks said after play. ‘We were too full up front and leading into tea. Then you saw once we came out, we had more aggression which helped us pick up four wickets.’
Indeed, four different Englishmen emerged from the tunnel only to be sent back. Sibley, on 44, was caught by a diving Quinton de Kock down the leg side to give Hendricks his first Test scalp. Crawley, who had registered his first Test fifty and was looking set on 66, fenced at a rising Philander delivery and was caught by Rassie van der Dussen at slip.
Joe Denly played a breezy but uncomfortable looking 27 before he awkwardly edged Dane Paterson to Van der Dussen. Then the big fish in Ben Stokes was caught with bait from Nortje, chasing a dangling wide one to give Van der Dussen his third catch.
50 runs for loss of four wickets. Yes, the pitch had accelerated and, yes, the Proteas had bowled better and yes, if we’re honest, England played with a reckless abandon not seen in the first session, but this was still worth celebrating. South Africa is a proud cricketing nation and dominant periods such as this have been rare.
Joe Root, not out on 25, and Ollie Pope, with him on 22, mustered a 35-run partnership to steer their team to stumps. Both were tested in Johannesburg’s gloom. Pope was left flat on his back by a snorting Hendricks bouncer. The 22-year-old from Chelsea in west London got back to his feet with a smile on his face.
Elite athletes love a contest as much as we do. Sometimes they lose their heads, as Stokes did when departing the pitch and engaging himself in a sweary exchange with a fan, but most of the time the scrap is what drives them.
Playing against another country’s best athletes is why they go through rehabilitation from injury. It’s why they accept the long periods away from home and the hassle of having to represent so many things to so many people.
All that is irrelevant when the ball is suspended in the air between batter and bowler. When the whole world draws a collective breath in anticipation of the climactic outcome of this one delivery. Often nothing happens. Sometimes a batter is left prone and humbled, only to return with a twinkle in his eye and the hunger for more.
This is what it’s about. The contest. The drama. The fight. South Africa showed plenty of it last night. If they can wake up with the same intent and execution, they might just be in with a shout.
Photo: Gallo Images