TELFORD VICE, Newlands
SHOULD auld acquaintance be forgot, SA will need reminding that this time last year they were pretending West Indies were dangerous opponents. Now, they are pretending they’re still test cricket’s finest team.
But the painful truth was writ large in lights on the scoreboard at stumps at Newlands on Saturday. Last year the Windies were 276/6 at the close on the first day of the New Year test. England hit the showers on 317/5, and that having faced three fewer overs than the Windies.
A crowd almost evenly divided in support for the two teams got value for their money, although South Africans will feel shortchanged – and not just because the rand is touching 23 to the pound.
But Kagiso Rabada, who took 3/74, put his money where the England fans’ mouths might well be on Sunday in the wake of him saying, “The Barmy Army haven’t been singing that much. I haven’t really felt their presence too much, but I know they’re there.
“The South African supporters were magnificent. I didn’t feel like I was playing away – it felt like we were home. Even if they sing out loud, I know we’re still home; we’re in our backyard.”
Did he at least understand the expectation that came with playing in front of a packed house at one of the game’s greatest grounds?
“I didn’t feel any pressure – it’s an opportunity to play.”
Ah, the freedom to be fearless that is the preserve of the youth. Those of us who have been around for longer and gathered a few scars along the way know in our hearts and minds that, for SA, playing at home isn’t as sweet as it once was. Not after the downward spiral they have endured these past few months.
Indeed, England’s crushing win at Kingsmead taught South Africans a lesson they would rather not have needed to learn; that their team are vulnerable anywhere.
Their batting, in particular, has had the feel of a mudslide – unstoppably unstable. On Saturday their bowlers, while looking like they meant business, failed to make the most of a pitch bursting with bounce but tempered with trueness.
Pair the attack’s inconsistency and penetration problems with an outfield that could rival Usain Bolt for pace and we could stop analysing what went wrong for SA on Saturday at the end of this sentence.
That said, not everything has changed in a bad way. Two of the good differences – the emergence of Rabada as a test bowler and Morne Morkel’s maturity – kept England within sight.
Rabada was SA’s most aggressive bowler. Although he considered himself “just a little erratic”, he was a sniping threat who removed the obdurate Nick Compton and James Taylor with consecutive deliveries.
Morkel got rid of a well-set Alex Hales midway through the second session and, immediately after SA conceded 46 runs in the first five overs with the second new ball, bowled a maiden. As a leader of the attack in the absence of the injured Dale Steyn, Morkel will do just fine.
Chris Morris came into the squad for the injured Kyle Abbott, was handed his cap by Shaun Pollock, and was rewarded for his persistence with the important wicket of Joe Root – whose 50 seemed to flow as effortlessly as the beer being guzzled all round the ground on a perfect summer’s day.
But Morris, strangely promoted at Morkel’s expense to share the second new ball with Rabada, bled 35 runs in the three overs he bowled with it. Dane Piedt, meanwhile, delivered his least effective performance in his four tests.
The big picture was that SA, while they did not bowl particularly poorly, failed to keep the pressure on England’s batsmen, who scored 76 runs in the morning session, 91 between lunch and tea, and 150 after that.
“It could have gone either way after 70 overs,” Hales said, and issued a warning: “We bat a long way down and all the guys are naturally attacking.”
Two of them, the freewheeling Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, are prime examples of Hales’ point and will be SA’s focus this morning when they resume with their partnership already 94 runs old.
Rabada, fearless young man or not, knew a big day awaited him and his teammates: “We’ve got to look to learn from our mistakes. We’re going to have to be tight.”
But the smalltalk didn’t last long: “Two, three wickets and we’re in it.”