England will have ended the first day of the 3rd Test against South Africa in relatively good spirits. 262-7 is not a bad return on a day’s work in the field, but they will have taken especial heart (and perhaps some relief) from proving to themselves that they can bowl this South African team out.
All they had to do today was knock off the remaining wickets cheaply and post a moderate total with their own wickets intact. If they could then go on to post even a modest lead on the Saturday, they would have a real chance of levelling the series to retain their No.1 ranking.
But it was not to be quite so straightforward. While an extra 39 runs might not seem like much, it took the South Africans above the 300 mark. The first five wickets fell for 105 runs while the second five fell for 204. This is the wrong way round: the sort of tail-wagging we have come to associate more with England over the last two years. Yet 309 was a manageable total, if only the English openers could see off the new ball and one of the top three stick around for the remainder of the day.
Lords, Stauss’ home ground, his 100th Test – he will have hoped for a performance to match his debut, scoring a century. But even though the pitch was playing well, Morkel’s pace and height proved awkward. Having the No.1 bowler coming in as first change is also a useful luxury, saying much about South African confidence in Morkel and Philander as their opening pair. Yet it was Morkel who clean-bowled Strauss (around the wicket) before lunch.
A good review of the umpire’s decision led to Trott being given lbw, then Cook was caught by Kallis off Steyn wafting outside off stump, and unfortunately Taylor, on his second Test, was soon caught at first slip off Morkel. 54-4 and England looked in trouble. A few nice shots seemed to be quickly followed by mistakes. There’s something about a batter looking at the ground after being dismissed that screams lack of confidence. This is the English weakness, always has been. The skill is there, but it’s frustrating to see them hesitant at the crease. One can’t help thinking that Pietersen’s outrageous defiance eases the burden on England in this respect.
Then again, perhaps it’s little more than South Africa having the best (probably) bowling attack in Test cricket at the moment. And with it they have four pace bowlers, Kallis giving them the balance a team only finds with the inclusion of a genuine all-rounder. I won’t return to this issue just now except to say that it seems quite plausible to me that England’s failure to press home their advantage yesterday comes down to their lack of a fourth seamer. Fatigue, even to the slightest degree, comes to all bowlers.
Yet, Bell and Bairstow then proceeded to prove this theory wrong. Bell scored a patient 58 off 157 balls, showing his customary touch and positivity, yet he will be extremely annoyed not to have seen out the day. He really needed to go on and get a big score after England’s poor start. But he steadied English nerves – such an important task – putting on a much-needed partnership of 124 with Bairstow.
The most pleasing note of the day came from Bairstow’s performance, ending the day on an unbeaten 72. He looks a strong prospect for the future, unafraid to take on the best bowlers, but it is in the present that England need him just now. And nearly as welcome was the absence of any discernible weakness while facing the short ball; some thought this a real problem after his experiences against the West Indies earlier in the year. The South Africans peppered him for a while, but the ball too often found its way to the boundary.
Strauss will be mightily relieved that Prior and Bairstow saw out the remainder of the day, closing on 208-5. Considering the poor start to the innings, he can hardly have hoped for more, trailing by just 101. They could have ended the day with no hope of a win, but it is surely still a viable outcome to this final Test. Tomorrow should be as riveting a day as any we’ve had so far this season. If England can retain their No.1 ranking, they will surely have earned it.