TELFORD VICE, Kingsmead
AN angel of optimism posing as a marketing maven snagged spectators as they streamed through Kingsmead’s gates on Saturday and asked, “Would you like to purchase a sachet of sunscreen?”
Clouds formed the canopy above. Below, wetness was everywhere. Sunscreen? Forget the sunscreen.
Mopping up delayed the start of SA’s test series against England by 30 minutes. Thirty more minutes later, lightening jagged through the clouds and forced the players off the field. Then thunder rumbled across the scene. In Durban. In December.
Rain followed, staying long enough to delay the resumption for 100 minutes and returning just more than an hour later. This time, as the dampness descended like dandelion down, the floodlights began cutting through the gloom. It was 2pm.
Play resumed 20 minutes later and three-and-a-half hours afterwards the fight with the elements was abandoned for the day. England, told to bat by Hashim Amla after he had won the toss for only the third time in his 13 tests as captain, were 179/4.
After shambling to a 3-0 hiding in India, SA were suddenly SA again – the No. 1 team come to remind everyone, themselves included, it seems, exactly who and what they were.
“India was a wake-up call for a lot of us,” Dale Steyn said. “We found that we’re probably not as good as we thought we were. It even started in Bangladesh (in July and August, when rain forced a drawn series). There were cracks in the armoury starting there.
“The boys have hurt. We’re going to go back to being a basic cricket team. With the amount of flair, talent and skill we have in our side, if we do the basics extremely well and throw in a bit of our flavour we’ll be back to that No. 1 team. It’s just a ranking but we can play like that – like we have in the past.”
That Steyn would seem to think SA are no longer the top-ranked team is factually incorrect, but it is a healthy mistake for him to make.
Not that SA made any until until Nick Compton, playing his first test since November 2013, and James Taylor, the son of a jockey who doesn’t stand much taller than a set of stumps himself, collaborated to disabuse the home side of the notion that all they needed to get back on track was a decent pitch.
The surface was slow, but it didn’t hurt SA’s cause that they had Steyn back from the groin strain that kept him out of most of the Indian series.
He bowled like a boy let loose on a beach, a wonder of energy and aggression straining at the limits of even his outrageous physicality.
“It’s been bloody frustrating sitting on the sidelines for six weeks,” Steyn said. And it looked like it in a first spell of six overs in which the batsmen took runs off him just five times and in which he conceded 11 and removed Alistair Cook and Alex Hales.
Cook extended his world record for opening the batting in test cricket to 207 innings, but failed to get off the mark before playing away from his body and steering to second slip a delivery snaking away.
Debutant Hales became the 908th man to take guard at the top of a test order. He won’t want to become the 169th man to do so only once. On the evidence of the 22 balls he faced for his 10, that won’t happen – even though he got out to a flaccid flash that nestled in AB de Villiers’ gloves.
With England reduced to 12/2, Compton and Joe Root nudged and nurdled them back towards safety. Only for Dane Piedt to pin the enterprising Root on the back thigh with a delivery that turned and bounced. Given out, Root called for a review and discovered that the ball would have hit the top of his middle stump.
The stand between Compton and Taylor reached 125 before Steyn snuffed it out with a delivery that hinted a touch away. A weary Taylor swung lustily and edged to be caught behind for 70.
Compton’s graft and Taylor’s grit made their batting about as pretty to watch as a look at the kitchen sink after Christmas lunch. But, unlike a second helping, that’s what was required.
On Sunday, Compton will doubtless continue in similar fashion as he looks to build his 63 not out – an innings already 179 balls in the making – into something monumental given that England do not have much batting left.
Like SA, England face questions about their batting in the wake of a series loss to Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates. Unlike SA, they have been tasked with answering them immediately.
Amla’s decision to insert England would have been prompted largely by the conditions and Steyn’s availability. But it bears wondering whether he was reluctant to expose his batsman even to an England attack without James Anderson – who is out of the first test with a calf injury – so soon after SA had been dismissed for fewer than 200 in six of their seven innings in India.
“If he doesn’t play (in the series) I’ll be very happy,” Steyn said. “He’s a pretty good bowler, so if he sits on the sidelines I’m stoked. I really don’t want to face him.”