Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope galvanised England with an unbroken stand of 76 after South Africa threatened to take charge of the third Test on day one at Port Elizabeth today.
Newly-named ICC Cricketer of the Year Stokes (38 not out) and Pope (39 not out) carried the tourists to 224-4 at stumps after coming together at 148-4 with England wobbling on an easy-paced pitch.
The partnership ensured that England, contesting their 500th overseas Test, didn’t squander the advantage won by captain Joe Root (27) at the toss – an advantage countered by the searching spin of Kushav Maharaj (1-55 off 32 overs) and a probing Proteas seam attack, led by Kagiso Rabada (2-48).
South Africa captain Faf du Plessis tried to laugh off his sixth lost toss in a row – despite closing in on Nasser Hussain’s Test record of 10 in succession as England captain – but his frustration grew as England openers Dom Sibley (36) and Zak Crawley (44) bedded in to put on 61 in the first session.
It was the first time since 2011 that an English opening pair had got through to lunch on day one of a Test unscathed – Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook the last two to do so at The Oval – the only scare coming when Crawley attempted to pull Kagiso Rabada’s third delivery and top-edged the ball just out of reach of Anrich Nortje’s outstretched hand at mid-on.
South Africa rallied on the resumption, choking the run-rate with precise leg-side fields backed by accurate bowling to restrict England to 56 runs in a 31-over afternoon session during which both openers were dismissed.
Sibley fell in the fourth over after lunch, working Rabada around the corner only to find Dean Elgar poised at leg gully to gobble up the chance and break the partnership on 70.
With Maharaj finding slow turn to tie up one end, conceding 22 runs off 19 overs, the scoreboard crept forward – Joe Denly (25 off 100 balls) struggling to rotate the strike after nearly driving into the hands of Elgar at short cover when he had just one to his name before moving into double figures for the 21st time in 24 knocks.
England had just brought up their 100 when Crawley fell six runs short of making his maiden Test fifty, undone by a sharp catch at leg gully by Rassie van der Dussen off Nortje – the diving fielder juggling the ball before clinging on.
Root might have gone before he’d scored – a top-edged sweep off Maharaj reaching the on-rushing Nortje on the first bounce – and three balls after tea Denly was well short of his ground as Hamza’s shy from square of the wicket fizzed past the stumps when he had 13.
His reprieve was short-lived, Denly undone by a delicious piece of bowling – beaten for pace by Maharaj and struck on the back pad in front of middle, South Africa winning the decision on review.
TV umpire Joel Wilson was quickly back in the action when Maharaj reviewed a ‘not out’ lbw decision against Stokes when the all-rounder had two only for replays to show the batsman was hit a fraction outside the line.
Frustration quickly turned to jubilation for the hosts as Rabada knocked back the top of Root’s off-stump with a delivery that kept a little low to leave England wobbling on 148-4.
At that stage paceman Mark Wood, recalled to the side for the injured James Anderson some 11 months after his last first-class game, might have wondered if he’d have to get his bowling boots on before the day was up.
Stokes might have followed Root for 10 but a rapid half-chance to Pieter Malan at short leg slipped out of his right hand, then again for 11 when an edge off debutant Dane Paterson fell just short of Du Plessis at first slip.
The scares diminished as Stokes and Pope found greater fluency against an attack tiring in the heat and humidity.
The arrival of the new ball gave England fresh impetus – Pope collecting three-straight boundaries off Nortje to help the fifty-runs stand come up off 98 balls.
Pope celebrated the partnership milestone by drilling the next delivery through the off-side for four and Stokes ensured England ended on a positive note by crunching Rabada over midwicket for six in the penultimate over. (Sky)