England edge opening day slow burner under the Port Elizabeth sun

Late partnership between Ollie Pope and Ben Stokes helps visitors set good foundation

Port Elizabeth: England 224-4 (Z Crawley 44, D Sibley 36, O Pope 33no) v South Africa

This was a slow burner of a day – except for those spectators foolish enough to stay out of the shade as a fierce sun blazed out of a cloudless sky in Port Elizabeth. The pitch was slow, the band was surprisingly slow to play their trademark "Stand By Me" and for much of the time the batting was slow until Ollie Pope launched a mini-assault against the second new ball in front of an admiring Ben Stokes.

Yet it would be foolish to conclude that in the 21st century it will stay as serene as this. Matches tend to accelerate on this ground. Despite a bland, innocuous-looking surface, draws are now a rarity here.

When the players left the field England, after winning the toss, were 224 for four and oddly enough both sides could feel content with their efforts. The batsmen had battled away but only the best of them, which included Pope, could score with any freedom. None of them could post a half-century but the unbeaten partnership of 76 between Pope and Stokes in the final 90 minutes gave England the edge.


The South Africans were tenacious and on target. There was not much there for the pacemen. As anticipated Faf du Plessis reinforced his attack by replacing Dwaine Pretorius with another 30-year-old debutant, Dale Paterson, one of a quartet who perspired freely, mostly when bowling from the Pavilion End.

Meanwhile Keshav Maharaj, the left-arm spinner, delivered 30 consecutive overs from the Duckpool End, finding occasional, slow turn along the way. He allowed very few liberties but the fact that he bowled so many overs reflects that this was no paceman's paradise.

So batting was hardly perilous but it was hard work for a new opening pair. They did not dominate the first session but they batted all the way through it, which was all that could be asked of them. This was the first time that England openers had batted through all of the opening session of a Test match since the Oval Test against India in 2011 when Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss were still in harness.

Du Plessis opened with his slower pacemen, Vernon Philander and Paterson. Zak Crawley was given one freebie from Philander which he cut for four but there would not be many more of those. Our expectation of this embryonic opening pair is that Dom Sibley is a sticker but that Crawley is no crawler. In fact Sibley proceeded more quickly in that morning session during which Du Plessis employed all five of his bowlers; he had 30 to Crawley's 20 at lunch. Even so England's first Zak was learning fast about the peculiar rigours of Test cricket with every over he survived.

After lunch both of them perished from shots off the face of their bats which were caught just behind square on the leg side, another indication of the nature of this pitch; the odd outside edge was not carrying to the slip cordon. Sibley clipped a rising delivery from Kagiso Rabada off his hip towards a crowded leg-side field and Dean Elgar held a sharp chance.

That brought Joe Denly to the crease and the Kent pair now ground away in a manner unfamiliar to regulars at Canterbury until Crawley flicked a full-length delivery from Anrich Nortje to the leg side and this time it was a diving Rassie van der Dussen who clung on to the catch. Crawley's 44 is his best yet for England even though this innings lacked his usual fluency.

At tea England had mustered 117 for two from 58 overs – cricket for the connoisseur is the standard euphemism. The pace and intrigue of the game increased in the final session. First there was the unusual dismissal of Denly. He went back to the persevering Maharaj and the ball dribbled to extra cover; obviously it had hit the bat but there was a half-hearted appeal. Had it hit the pad first? The South Africans wisely reviewed and discovered this was indeed the case and that the batsman was lbw.

So there was more exasperation for Denly, who had batted 100 balls for his 25. He has now made it to double figures 21 times in his 24 visits to the crease in Test cricket. This puts him in second place in a quirky list of batsmen with the highest percentage of double figure scores among those who have played 20 Test innings. The West Indian Charlie Davis is at the top of this list and after Denly comes Colin Bland, Marnus Labuschagne, Shimron Hetmyer and Jack Hobbs, a contrasting top six.

Now Rabada produced the most spectacular moment of the day when bowling to Joe Root, who had been the most proactive of the English batsmen, especially against Maharaj. In he sped, Root was lodged on the crease and late on the ball which crashed into his off-stump. Rabada roared in celebration a few feet from Root, who was about to begin his gloomy trek back to the pavilion.

England were faltering at 148 for four but Stokes and Pope stayed firm. Early on Stokes had a few trials against Maharaj but then he batted with easy discretion. Pope was rock-solid as well but the panache with which he struck three fours in Nortje’s first over with the new ball enhanced English expectations of what might happen when play resumes on Friday. – Guardian