England crash to South Africa’s dash

“It’s nothing new.” – Kagiso Rabada on ‘Bazball’.

Telford Vice / Lord’s

“GOOD morning and welcome to sunny Lord’s,” a volunteer, in a voice as bright as an MCC tie, bawled on Wednesday as the hordes streamed out of St John’s Wood tube station, bound for cricket’s grandest ground half-a-kilometre away. For a session and more, she was right. Sort of.

Amid, around and between bits and bobs of sunshine, grey, gloomy clouds huffed and puffed but didn’t blow cricket’s house down. But, six overs after lunch, they managed to fly in formation well enough to douse the place. Thus emboldened, the rain intensified and thunder and lightning flashed and crashed through the scene.

How significant was the storm by South African standards, Vernon Philander was asked on commentary. “This is a little tiny one,” he said. It was bigger than that, and it prevented any further play — which was called off for the day 90 minutes before the scheduled close with 58 overs left unbowled.

England were no doubt relieved, as well as dazed and confused. For the first time since ‘Bazball’ began blazing its trail four Tests — all of them won batting last — or 14 months ago, they are batting first. And making a hash of it on a responsive pitch, under swinging skies and in the face of a fired-up pace attack, which reduced them to 116/6.

It must have been discombobulating enough that Joe Root, who had scored three centuries and an unbeaten 86 in his previous seven Test innings, and in June became only the second Englishman after Alastair Cook to reach 10,000 runs in the format, could be trapped in front for only eight by Marco Jansen’s wickedly worming swing.

But you could hear the thunk of disbelief even more loudly when Jonny Bairstow and his middle stump went in opposite directions courtesy of an express, incisive inswinger from Anrich Nortjé. In a society that runs on myth and nostalgia, players who have scored four hundreds and 71 not out in their last five trips to the crease cannot possibly fail to keep fighting them on the beaches or anywhere else. Until they do, John Bull in this case falling for a fifth-ball duck.

To Ollie Pope goes the job of putting it all together again now that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men have lost their way. Almost all: Stuart Broad’s experience and Jack Leach’s obduracy should help Pope add to his 61 not out, and to England’s recovery.

“Our mantra of trying to put the opposition under pressure, [Pope] did that brilliantly,” Paul Collingwood told a press conference. “He was composed at the crease on a pitch that was giving [the bowlers] quite a lot of assistance, and he got us into a position at the end of the day’s play where we’re not necessarily out of the game. He’s batted exceptionally well and shown a lot of skill. Hopefully he can himself back in tomorrow and get us back into a position where we can see where we are in the game. I guess we won’t know that until we’ve bowled on that same surface.” That the home side sent out their assistant coach to explain what had gone wrong told its own story.

On Tuesday, Dean Elgar put his foot down on questions about how his team would cope with ‘Bazball’ — “With all due respect I’m not going to entertain that anymore” — but Kagiso Rabada wasn’t going to get off that lightly. His gently deflective answers were as slippery as his bowling: “Ever since I started playing Test cricket it’s been the same story. You’re playing against top quality batters, and they try and put pressure on whoever they’re facing. It’s nothing new. That’s why it’s Test cricket: you have top bowlers bowling at top batters and each individual trying to put pressure on their opponent. That’s what makes it a spectacle.”

Rabada has been a top performer for long enough to not embellish another sterling day’s work, even if it did earn dividends not often seen in only 32 overs. “We’ve always bowled the same, and there was a bit in the pitch today,” he said. “Normally you tend to do the same thing over and over in Test cricket. You have slightly different plans to each batter. These days you have analysts and there’s a lot of data being collected. You change those strategies slightly, but overall the game is kept simple. Different teams have different strategies, and it’s about adapting to what the opposition throws at you. The opposition can play however they want. It’s OK.” 

In a rasping opening spell of rare quality, even for Rabada, he had a tentative Alex Lees caught behind and Zak Crawley scooped off the turf by Aiden Markram at second slip. Nortjé added the Bens — Stokes and Foakes — to his Bairstow blast either side of lunch. Lungi Ngidi didn’t take a wicket, but no-one was more difficult to get away. The truth of South Africa’s bowling was that the attack did its job, and more, as an attack and not as a collection of individuals. They were aided in no small way by Kyle Verreynne, who threw himself about with as much commitment as precision to haul in the bowlers’ more rangy efforts. 

Days won’t always unfold as poorly for England, or as well for South Africa. The players will know that. They will also know that the weather is likely to be better for cricket at Lord’s on Thursday. Probably not sunny, but you can’t have everything.

First published by Cricbuzz.

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England crash to South Africa’s dash