TELFORD VICE at The Oval
ON another day and under another set of rules Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel might have taken 10 wickets on Thursday. Each.
Philander overcame the effects of a stomach bug to claim just two scalps and Kagiso Rabada and Chris Morris took one each, and the emptiness of Morkel’s wicket column was a reminder of how ignorant the game’s gods can be.
They smiled instead on Alastair Cook, who delivered one of those old-fashioned grinding innings every cricketminded English child, woman and man has been demanding since long before this series.
When rain, which took 31 overs out of the first day of the third test, ended matters Cook was 82 not out with England on 171/4.
South Africans who feel the need to wonder where England would have been without the redoubtable left-hander might also want to stop and think about how their team would have fared without Philander and Morkel.
With Rabada still not the rapier he was a season or so ago — despite his ban-enforced rest for the second test, and notwithstanding the ripper with which he yorked Dawid Malan — Morris hogging the element of surprise by bowling the odd on-target delivery amid a spray of lesser stuff, and Keshav Maharaj wheeling away with plenty of aggressive intent but not much penetration, South Africa fired consistently on only two of their five cylinders.
But how those cylinders fired.
Neither Cook nor Keaton Jennings nor Tom Westley could take a run off the first 23 deliveries bowled by Philander, who by then had had Jennings superbly caught low down by Dean Elgar at third slip, in a first spell of 4-3-2-1.
The problem for South Africa was that Philander was off the field with his tummy problem between the ninth and the 36th overs.
Morkel seemed to take Philander’s absence as his cue, post lunch, to bowl six virtually unhittable overs of pace and bounce and swing and seam that yielded seven runs and, with damnable unfairness, no wickets.
So it goes sometimes, as Cook might have mused.
South Africa thought they had Cook when Morris smacked him on the pads and in front of his stumps when he was 28, and with one wicket down and 47 on the board. But the gizmo said no — allegedly the ball had been edged onto the pad.
Cook and Tom Westley, one of three England debutants along with Malan and fast bowler Toby Roland-Jones, added 52 for the second wicket before Morris had Westley taken at second slip for 25.
Joe Root arrived to share another 49 with Cook, a stand ended by a Philander away-swinger that took Root’s edge and almost foxed Quinton de Kock, who had moved towards the leg side.
De Kock corrected and dived for all his brilliance to take the catch one-handed, and the dangerous Root was gone for 29.
Malan kept out the first 16 balls he faced. The 17th left him in a heap on the pitch with his stumps splayed behind him, and Rabada celebrating his return from his Trent Bridge ban.
Ben Stokes, who at Lord’s was the target of the offence that triggered Rabada’s sanction, helped Cook take England to the early close.
Stokes doesn’t usually play the long game but he did on Thursday, taking his cue from Cook — who had no qualms about uglying his way through the afternoon. The partnership is worth 51, 21 of them belonging to Stokes.
England will need more of the same when play resumes on Friday.
Doubtless, they will get it. But South Africa will get Philander and Morkel, and perchance a little more help from their friends.