South Africa show steel to give Root cause for concern
England’s batting lacking in discipline and patience Visitors’ teamwork puts them in sight of victory
South Africa captain Faf Du Plessis called this match a “huge test of character” for his team and they have risen to the challenge to put themselves in a position to level the series.
Their resurgence has left Joe Root facing up to the realities of what it means to be the England Test captain in only his second match after the team’s batting crumbled in a re-run of so many performances of the recent past. England have new leadership, but the same old problems persist.
They capitulated on a pitch offering assistance to the bowlers and failed to show the discipline and patience Test match cricket sometimes requires from players. Their ultra-aggressive, white heat approach cost them badly.
Devising a Plan B has to be top of Root’s list. They batted in one gear, flying along in the outside lane at 100mph but on a pitch seaming and swinging, and against two excellent South Africa fast bowlers, it was a gamble that backfired spectacularly to cost them a 130-run first innings deficit.
They had been warned. James Anderson’s four wickets for four runs in 16 balls in the morning showed how tricky batting would be but still England attacked. It meant that by the end Anderson was bowling again, his morning’s work wasted. England produced the two standout individual performances of the day with Anderson’s five for 72 and Root’s 78 off 76 balls but Test cricket requires more than that and South Africa have ground out a team performance that puts them in charge.
Anderson struck once more to take the 15th wicket of the day but South Africa were 205 ahead by the close on 75-1. The highest successful run chase at Trent Bridge is 286, and with plenty of time left in the match South Africa today will set up the win they deserve.
Du Plessis’s return from paternity leave has galvanised his team and underlined his unofficial status as the best Test captain in world cricket.
With his team 1-0 down in the series he has gone on the front foot. He gambled on batting first on a bowling morning on Friday, cleverly cajoled his bowlers as he sensed English recklessness on Saturday afternoon and used his reviews wisely in contrast to Root on the first day. South Africa dropped catches and lost two wickets to no balls at Lord’s. Du Plessis called the mistakes “non-negotiables”. Here they caught everything and not one bowler overstepped. Orders were followed.
At Lord’s South Africa had England 80 for four and let them get away. It cost them the match. This time England were 86 for three and history threatened to repeat itself as Root attacked and lifted his team to 143 for three. Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander were bowling superbly but it was different game when they went off as debutant Duane Ollivier looked nervous and struggled to control the swinging Duke ball and Chris Morris was wayward.
After lunch Morkel bowled a wonderful spell of seam and swing bowling and it was high class, captivating Test cricket at its best as Root counterpunched for England playing some cracking strokes around the ground as a first innings lead beckoned. All England seemingly had to do was see off Morkel and batting would become easier as the afternoon wore on and South African spirits flagged. But Du Plessis squeezed one more over out of his tired fast bowler who had already bowled six on the spin. Root went hard at the first ball of Morkel’s seventh over looking to play another fizzing drive through the off side but instead the ball moved late and he edged behind. This time England would not get away, and the innings folded within 22 overs.
The breakthrough galvanised South Africa’s back-up bowlers. Morris found an extra yard of pace and cast off his timidity of the morning, bowling aggressively to pick up three for 38 while left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj used the rough wisely and found turn to take three for 21.
Morkel’s brilliance to left-handers is well known. He puts it down to bowling in the garden at his two brothers, who were left-handed. Here Keaton Jennings was in his sights and dismissed with a snorter that lifted and moved late to find the edge. Alastair Cook had already gone, struggling against the clever nip and swing of Philander. He was out caught behind but only after Du Plessis went for a review with the umpire turning down what he thought was an lbw shout. There was a spike on ultra edge and Cook was gone caught behind.
Gary Ballance again did the hard work, moving to 27 and building the foundation of an innings that could save his Test career. But after lunch he played a lazy shot to his first ball, driving loosely to be bowled off his pads. He has made scores of 20, 34 and 27 on his return to the side with two soft dismissals and one unplayable ball. The clock is ticking.
Root was different class. His driving on the front foot pushes back the lengths of bowlers looking to be full so the ball can swing and find the edge. Anything slightly shorter was guided down to third man in controlled fashion and he pulled powerfully as he reached his fifty off 40 balls, the equal fastest by an England captain.
England were rattling along at five an over but his partners never suggested permanence. Jonny Bairstow cracked fours but it was a frantic and uncontrolled innings. Ben Stokes, deprived of the strike for five overs, was out pushing forward and edging on to his pad, which lifted Maharaj’s confidence, and he soon ripped one through Bairstow.
Moeen plays one way and it was not suited to this occasion. After driving Morris through the off side, Du Plessis moved himself to square cover. Morris delivered a slower ball and Mooen hit it straight to the South Africa captain as his ploy paid off immediately. Du Plessis then reviewed an lbw next ball that sent Broad on his way and a Liam Dawson slog summed up England’s innings.
Turning point: England captain Joe Root is dismissed for 78 by Morne Morkel