If Stokes had been dismissed at that stage, it would really have opened things up. But Stokes, as always, played the match situation perfectly
KESHAV Maharaj proved to be the cornerstone of the attack as the Standard Bank Proteas were relatively successful in combating the disadvantage of losing their sixth toss in a row on the opening day of the third Test match against England at St. George’s Park, Port Elizabeth, yesterday.
In the end England closed the day on 224/4 in conditions that gave the home seamers no assistance at all in terms of pace, bounce, swing or seam and left one wondering which team had ultimately had the better day.
If there was no assistance for the seamers that included debutant Dane Paterson among their number, then there was at least some slow turn for Maharaj who bowled unchanged for most of the day after coming on after 22 overs and having a short breather when the second new ball was taken, before having another couple before the close of play.
His analysis of 1/55 in 32 overs (11 maidens) was scant reward for his efforts and it could have been so much better as he lost out on a review against Ben Stokes thanks to an umpire’s call and also had England’s key player dropped off a very sharp chance to Pieter Malan at short leg.
The Proteas had looked in position to make a decisive breakthrough when Kagiso Rabada bowled England captain Joe Root to leave the visitors on 148/4. If Stokes had been dismissed at that stage, it would really have opened things up. But Stokes, as always, played the match situation perfectly.
At Newlands there had been the need for quick runs and he exploded; this time crease occupation was the key and the need to get England through the early stages of the second new ball.
He had the right partner in the highly impressive Ollie Pope as the pair added an unbroken 76 for the fifth wicket with Stokes finishing on 38 (86 balls, 5x4s) and Pope on 39 (79 ball, 7x4s).
If England will take one thing home from this tour it will be the fact that the youngster has nailed down a top order spot in the side. He was still a 21-year-old until the day before the Newlands Test started and his innings there which played a key role in their first innings lead together with the one he has played so far this time has underlined his potential.
With the conditions giving his seamers nothing, Faf du Plessis had to think out of the box during the lunch interval after England had reached 61 without loss at the first interval. And the plan he devised with a leg-side strategy similar to the one New Zealand had used with success against Steve Smith in their recent series in Australia worked to perfection between lunch and tea when the Proteas bowled 31 overs and took 2/56.
There was more success in the hour after tea when two more wickets fell before Stokes and Pope took charge again as England scored 107 in the extended final session.
England are probably ahead in the match – but not by very much.