TELFORD VICE, Wanderers
A crack was followed by a boom at the Wanderers on Friday, and not from the skies above even though they were locked and loaded with the kind of clouds that make Johannesburg’s thunderstorms so epic.
Instead, the crack came from Joe Root’s bat and the boom was the crowd’s reaction to the ball racing to the cover boundary: “ROOOOOOOOOOOOOT!”
With that, Jawless Joe became Smokin’ Joe, owner of his ninth test century – and a damn fine one at that.
Root scored his runs with the fluidity of a Highveld downpour itself, 54 of them on the on-side, 52 on the off. Stopping him from reeling them in seemed impossible, even for a SA attack that gave as good as they got.
He was still, well, rooted to his spot on 106 not out when bad light followed by a real storm forced the close 45 minutes early on the second day of the third test.
England were 238/5 – 75 runs behind SA’s first innings of 313.
Removing Root early on Saturday will be key to SA’s hopes of keeping their noses ahead in what is brewing into the keenest contest of the series.
With Root is Jonny Bairstow in a stand that is already 36 runs old. Both are superb players. Of England’s remaining batsmen, two – Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad – have scored test centuries – while the other two – James Anderson and Steven Finn – have made half-centuries.
But Root matters most to England’s cause. He has taken on SA’s bowlers with vim and vigour on a fine pitch that dared him to try, and he has been rewarded.
“(The pitch) keeps you honest; if you get bad balls you can score,” Root said.
SA, though, did not stand back and let him or any Englishman dictate matters. The ensuing battle was as electric as the fiercest storm, and there will be intense anticipation of a resumption on Saturday.
Chris Morris, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and new cap Hardus Viljoen tore into their work like men who had been given licence to thrill.
If this is what AB de Villiers has in mind for his tenure as SA’s test captain, fasten your seatbelts – it will not be boring.
To Viljoen went the joy of a dream debut. Having hammered the first ball he faced, a scudding full toss from Anderson, to the long-on fence for four, he took a wicket with the first ball he bowled – a leg-side straggler that Alastair Cook chased and edged, and which Dane Vilas dived like bliksem to hang onto.
Both of those balls were filthy, but they made Viljoen only the second test cricketer after New Zealand’s Matthew Henderson to hit a boundary and claim a scalp with his first effort with bat as well as ball.
Viljoen’s inclusion in the squad came as a silver lining after plans for a holiday to Mossel Bay disappeared into a cloud of bad luck.
“Nothing worked out – we couldn’t catch a flight and our accommodation got cancelled,” Viljoen said. “So we said we’re just going to visit some friends down the road.
“The moment we drove out of the gate I got a phone call from the convenor of selectors, Mr Linda Zondi. I almost drove over the pavement when I got the call, but here I am making my test debut.”
And that after, in April, he had considered a move to New Zealand.
“You get brought up in your country to play for your country,” Viljoen said. “I told myself I’ll give myself the right amount of time and a fair chance to represent my country, and it came quicker than I thought.
“I’ll never regret staying here.”
The fact that Viljoen looks more like a No. 8 than a fast bowler might have made the New Zealanders want to put him in an All Black jersey instead. How many kilogrammes can he lift in the gym?
“I don’t bench-press; it’s just good food – pap en boerewors.”
SA, who resumed on 267/7, added 46 runs in the 10.3 overs they faced before they were dismissed by an England attack that bowled with more purpose than on the previous day.
Cook’s dismissal was preceded by Rabada ripping Alex Hales from the crease by way of second slip.
Then Temba Bavuma leapt “high” to palm and catch a delivery from Morkel after James Taylor had edged it onto his pad.
Ben Stokes banged Morkel up and over cover for four. Two balls later, Morkel, mad as a snake, yelled off all pretenders and took the catch himself when Stokes sent a leading edge looping into the covers.
It was that kind of afternoon. The smell of cordite hung in the air and blood pumped hot and urgent through every vein in this concrete canyon.
Wanderers, we do not have a problem.