Lightning strikes at Lord’s

“What we’ve laid down as a foundation has been true and solid. It hasn’t been fake. It’s been unique and real. We’re a special bunch, and we play bloody good cricket.” – Dean Elgar

Telford Vice / Lord’s

SOME victories are achieved so slowly they seem covered in cobwebs by the time they creak into view. Others happen almost by accident, as if someone forgot to shut the door and success seeped in unnoticed. Still others are more lost by the losers than won by the winners.

What happened at Lord’s on not much more than Wednesday morning, a full day’s play on Thursday, and two sessions on Friday was none of the above. South Africa’s win, by an innings and a dozen runs in the equivalent of less than two days of actual playing time, was a thing of brutal beauty; a triumph taken by fabulous force, neither navigated nor negotiated nor nicely played.

Dean Elgar arrived at his press conference at 4.41pm, or 53 minutes after Marco Jansen had yorked James Anderson to end the match. Elgar sat down, glanced at the reporters’ recording cell phones ranged on the table in front of him, and said, “Someone battery is low here.” He might have been talking about himself. South Africa’s captain looked not elated but exasperated, as if the triumph had rushed up on him and left him under-prepared to make sense of it all. “I didn’t wake up this morning thinking I’d be doing a presser before five o’clock,” he said.

What didn’t need explaining was that South Africa, having resumed on 289/7, were dismissed with a lead of 161 in the 13th over of the day’s play. Jansen, Keshav Maharaj and Anrich Nortjé pumped 117 runs into the cause between them, and Stuart Broad bowled with gumption to claim the last two wickets. Broad also took a leaping backhanded catch at midwicket to remove Kagiso Rabada off Matthew Potts.

Doubtless much of the buzz around the ground during the change of innings was focused on wondering whether England’s ‘Bazball’ philosophy, which had earned victories in all of their previous four home Tests this summer, could possibly fail them twice in the same match. It could. The 165 they were dismissed for on Wednesday was their lowest total in the first innings of a match in their last nine Tests at home. Their 149 on Friday, an effort consigned to the annals after just 37.4 overs, marked the first time they had been beaten by an innings in their own backyard since August 2015. Or 45 home Tests ago. But it was the third time in less than two years that they had lost inside three days.

Ben Stokes tried to play it cool: “They outplayed us over three days, which is fine. We’ve lost a game of cricket but we’ve got two games left in the series. Whatever style of cricket you’re going to play, if you don’t play anywhere near your capability you’re going to lose.”

Nortjé sniped at express pace to remove Jonny Bairstow, Alex Lees and Ben Foakes in the space of 10 of his deliveries, and Maharaj settled immediately to trap Zak Crawley in front with his third ball of the match and Ollie Pope with the last delivery before lunch. Broad, Potts, Stokes and Anderson were dealt with across 21 balls as the match hurtled to a conclusion.

What do you make of all that then, Mr Elgar? “I’d like to think that what we’ve laid down as a foundation has been true and solid. It hasn’t been fake. It’s been unique and real. It hasn’t been far-fetched. It’s not unrealistic. It’s pretty achievable. We’re a special bunch, and we play bloody good cricket when we’re doing well.

“I’m not going to make us go into a comfort zone because I know what complacency can do in international sport. We need to enjoy these moments. We did it at a unique place — a sold-out Lord’s on a Friday. It’s special for a lot of guys who haven’t experienced that before. We need to enjoy the next two days and then focus on the next Test.

“I’d like to think my margin for error is a lot bigger having four fast bowlers, and our No. 3 and 4 [Jansen and Nortjé] are the fastest. And ‘Kesh’ is a world-class bowler in his own right. I want them to get better still. I need them to achieve more and to want to achieve more.”

With much having been made of the teams’ contrasting styles, and England successfully chasing between 279 and 378 to win those previous four Tests, how much about Elgar’s decision to field first after winning the toss was prompted by the conditions and how much was about denying the home side the opportunity to do what they knew they were good at: bat last?      

“What they’ve done this summer didn’t influence my train of thought,” Elgar said. “I went with my gut.” But it wasn’t a simple matter. “You have no idea what was going through my head on day one when we got here and it was overcast, and then 15 minutes later the bloody sun is shining. And you’re like, ‘What is going on here now?’

“Our strength is our bowling, and I thought the best conditions for bowling were on day one. And ‘KG’ [Rabada, who took 5/52 in the first innings] really brought it. He’s an absolute machine when it comes to rising to the occasion for big matches. He put his hand up, he took the bull by the horns and he ran with it. He made my decision a lot easier.

“I’m more a bat-first captain. I like putting runs on the board first. I think that’s important. But sometimes you’ve got to go horses for courses. You’ve got to respect the conditions that are in front of you. Everything was saying bowl first, but I was still looking to bat first. In chats with the coaches, I think they swayed my decision. It paid off.”

And in some style. And quickly. And with plenty of forward momentum to take to Old Trafford, where the second Test starts on Thursday. Don’t blink, or you might miss it.

First published by Cricbuzz.

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Lightning strikes at Lord’s