Day 1 of 5:
J Root 184*, M Ali 61*, B Stokes 56
The opening salvos of this day promised much for South Africa but unforced errors, superb aggression from the new England captain and concerns over the fitness of their best bowler saw them relinquish the advantage they’d earned in the first session.
That England have control of this match already is largely down to Joe Root, who ended the day unbeaten on 184 – but South Africa will have plenty of regrets as they pondered the first day. Three times they let Root off the hook, two of those in middle of the period when they were dominating the game.
While 82/4 at lunch certainly represented an excellent morning’s work by the Proteas, giving Root all those opportunities, first when he had 5 – with substitute fielder Aiden Markram misjudging the flight of the ball at fine leg, and then on 16 – when JP Duminy dropped a simple chance in the gully, left a lingering sense of concern at the interval.
Whatever life there had been in the surface in the morning was baked out by the time the players returned and with the ball softer England quickly reasserted themselves. Ben Stokes, who punished South Africa so memorably at Newlands 18 months ago, was quickly into his stride with four boundaries.
South Africa adopted a defensive mindset reasonably swiftly as a result, shifting fielders back onto the boundary allowing Root in particular to nudge some comfortable singles and ease his way into his innings following his problems in the morning.
The tourists couldn’t build any pressure in the manner they wished for a couple of reasons. Vernon Philander after a magnificent first session – which he ended with figures of 3/26 from seven overs – then returned in the afternoon bowling spells of three and two overs respectively. Clearly the ankle problem that saw him miss the warm-up match at Worcester against the England Lions was still troubling him. Late in the final session he bowled another three-over spell with the second new ball, but lacked zip as Root accompanied by Moeen Ali thrilled the home crowd.
Meanwhile, left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj was unable to assert the same level of control that he and his teammates have come to expect from him, even at this early stage of his career. Clearly a significant element of England’s pre-match game-plan was to target Maharaj – who in seven Tests had an economy rate of 2.71 but yesterday he conceded 107 runs in 22 overs.
It wasn’t that he bowled badly but Root and Stokes initially and then Moeen later refused to allow him to settle into any sort of rhythm, cleverly using their feet to him.
On the one occasion when he did rip one past the outside edge of Root’s bat and had him stumped, it was Maharaj, who erred in bowling a no-ball. It’s an unforgivable mistake from a spinner.
It was the second time the Proteas had missed a wicket because of a no-ball – earlier Morné Morkel had bowled Stokes off his pad when on 44. No-balls had been highlighted by bowling coach Charl Langeveldt following the Lions game where South Africa bowled 13, and missed out on wickets there as a result too.
At training this week all the bowlers were being reminded by the coaches about where their front feet were landing, but clearly all those cues were forgotten in the heat of battle.
As the day wound down and Root and Moeen Ali dominated a tired attack – which through the missed chances had taken an emotional battering too – the non-selection of Chris Morris came even more sharply into focus.
Elgar could certainly have used that extra option with the ball.
It’s a long way back for the Proteas from here, and the visitors will reflect on and probably regret their first day misses but they must return today with spirits renewed if they are to make a more positive impression on their first Test.