Cook and England set the tone early
CRICKET:THIS WAS England’s day and in a most emphatic way. Alastair Cook’s 20th Test match hundred, a cultured half-century from Jonathan Trott and, almost inevitably given the furore generated about his future, a cameo from Kevin Pietersen took England to 276 for three by the close of the first day of what we are promised will be a tumultuous, albeit all too brief series.
Cook and England were outstanding, overcoming the loss of their captain, Andrew Strauss, who went without scoring to the fourth ball of the day from Morne Morkel. They registered a second-wicket partnership of 170 and one of 81 for the third followed before Pietersen was out for 42, carelessly, it must be said, hooking and gloving Jacques Kallis with the second new ball imminent. It left Ian Bell a tricky 45 minutes to negotiate, which he did successfully, and he will resume on 10 with Cook, who has 114.
Commendable as England were, however, South Africa were lacklustre throughout. There was little of the devil evident in a potentially devilish attack. Defensive fields were set too readily by Graeme Smith but inadequately so that, although the idea was to pursue a fifth-stump line outside off stump, two of the most serene batsmen in the world in Cook and Trott were given single after single on the leg side, meat and drink to the pair.
It will not have sat kindly with the bowlers, for they tend to get frustrated when the strike is rotated as readily as this, the board ticks over and there is a constant adjustment in line to be made between right- and left-hander.
This was bowling “damp” rather than “dry”, a drip-feed of runs. The idea that the visitors were fully prepared by their rain-affected matches at Taunton and Canterbury is clearly fallacious: they looked, as might be expected, ring-rusty in thought and deed.
For all that, Cook played an outstanding innings, one of his most accomplished, in which he scarcely put a foot wrong all day against one of the most vaunted attacks of recent years.
He was abetted by a pitch that was unexpectedly benign given the nature of the summer. Presumably the groundsman, fearing that he might not be able to get the pitch dry at all, decided not to water, so that when England arrived earlier in the week and saw it, they might well have given strong consideration to calling up a second spinner to the squad.
Certainly it would not have been prepared to order or contingency would have been made. In any event England will anticipate the pitch turning sooner rather than later, a godsend for Graeme Swann, with the bonus of reverse swing for the seamers, some of which was seen from Dale Steyn later on, and an art at which the England are particularly adept.
Strauss was a happy fellow when Smith, who would have opted similarly to bat first, called incorrectly at the toss. It was, however, the best possible start for South Africa and one consolation at least for pre-planning.
Habitually, since Vernon Philander arrived in the side, it has been he and Steyn who take the new ball. Morkel, though, had dismissed Strauss and Cook half a dozen times apiece, more than any other batsmen, and he it was who bowled the first over, from round the wicket, and caught Strauss on the crease, an lbw decision granted only on review.
If it brought visions of England plunging into a mire, the South Africans were to be disillusioned. It was to be 58 overs before Trott drove uncharacteristically loosely at Morkel and edged to the keeper, by which time he had played as prolifically as ever off his legs in making 71, with nine fours.