England pulled off one of their finest wins away from home of the last decade. In fact, if you ignore a win in Chittagong against a weak Bangladesh side in 2010, this is England’s first win in the First Test of a series since December 2004. Their opponents then? South Africa.
That was the game where Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers made their debuts. Port Elizabeth was also a game where the host selectors made an error in their wicket-keeping choice. Fast forward to December 2015 and they made a similar mistake. Back then the spectre of quotas reared its ugly head as Mark Boucher was dropped for Thami Tsolekile. It weakened the home batting line-up as they struggled against an England team six months away from winning The Ashes for the first time for twenty-eight years. In Durban this week they dispensed with the services of Dane Vilas who had recently toured India, and handed the gloves back to AB de Villiers. De Villiers, a reluctant keeper, struggled with the bat and also dropped some important chances.
Kingsmead, Durban has been a kind venue for England down the years, losing just once (in 1928) in ninety-two years. Conditions were damp on the first morning and when Alistair Cook again called incorrectly, South African captain, Hashim Amla, had no hesitation in asking the tourists to bat first. Cook has now lost the toss for the fourth successive test, and his record as captain is quite a poor one in this regard. He has called correctly just five times from twenty-one away matches.
England went into the game without James Anderson who failed to be fit for this match but is expected to make it for the Second Test in Cape Town. Steve Finn made a remarkable recovery from his injury which saw him leave the UAE tour a month or so ago. Chris Woakes came in to take Anderson’s place with Alex Hales earning his first cap at test level. Hales opened the batting with Cook, allowing Moeen Ali to drop back down to eight where he enjoys his role. Stokes was also back in after picking up a nasty injury in the UAE.
England have relied heavily on the batting of Cook and Root to such an extent when the two fail to register a meaningful score, the whole innings tends to suffer. Not this time, though. The most significant addition to the team could arguably be Nick Compton. Compton made his debut in Ahmedabad in late 2012. After nine matches and averaging barely above thirty, he was dropped. It has stuck in his craw ever since and this time round he was a more determined individual.
Personally, I believe England were right to drop him. In his last test, at Headingley against New Zealand, he had looked out of his depth. In that match he batted for over one hundred minutes for just eight runs and it was painful to watch. The Compton-circa 2015, is a much more developed, confident, determined player. He appears to be more at home with who he is and wants to be. It’s thirty months since we saw Compton in the test arena and it has been worth the wait.
Rain permitted just 6.1 overs on the first morning, but enough time for Steyn to find the edge of Cook’s bat and England were 3-1. When Steyn was able to finish his fourth over he found the edge of Hales bat too and England were now 12-2. Root joined Compton but just as England were nearing fifty, South African off-spinner, Dane Piedt, surprised him with one that turned from his first ball of the match and 49-3 was a precarious position for the visitors.
But Compton was now in his element. Content to take his time, put away the bad ball and just play his own game, he put on 125 for the fourth wicket with James Taylor. Neither batsman featured during the Ashes summer yet here they were constructing a decent partnership to get their team out of a hole. Taylor was continuing where he left off in UAE and the Bell-shaped hole some thought might exist in England’s middle-order was now somewhat more assured. Taylor reached his half century first off 87 balls, whereas Compton’s took 145 balls. Steyn returned in time to get his third wicket and England closed the first day 179-4. Compton was unbeaten on 63
With conditions much improved for the second morning England had made the correct decision not to bring in a nightwatchman when Taylor was out the previous evening. Stokes wasted no time in laying into Steyn and was soon into the twenties. But it didn’t last long and a typically cavalier innings from Stokes had a typically cavalier ending, but the message it sent was poignant as England were now looking to take advantage of their hard work from the first day.
Bairstow helped himself to a couple of boundaries before the new ball was taken, but runs just flowed even more. England had scored 53 runs in the first hour and South Africa were struggling to keep them in check. Abbott had one over with the new ball before Morkel replaced him. Bairstow pulled his fourth boundary and then when Compton tried to repeat the shot he got a fine edge to de Villiers and was out for 85. The innings had lasted 383 minutes and he’d faced 236 balls. It was a crucial performance and one England had badly missed at three since the days of Trott in his pomp.
In Morkel’s next over he got Moeen to prod at one outside off-stump and the home side were fighting back. Then Morkel produced a beauty, full and straight and hit Woakes pads and he had two in two. Stuart Broad then faced a beauty for the hat-trick ball which was probably too good for him to edge it. It had been a wonderful spell from Morkel and he was hauling the home side back into it.
Abbott then replaced Steyn and within four balls had also got into the act. Bairstow threw the bat at one and Elgar picked up his second catch at slip. Bairstow had made 41 at a decent rate but England really needed him to stick around for a while longer. England had slipped from 247-5 to 267-9 in 4.5 overs. The pitch wasn’t necessarily a tough one to bat on but many were talking about a first innings score of 350 being significant and now England were struggling to reach 270.
One aspect of this England side is how deep they bat, but you could be forgiven in thinking they had ten batsmen and a bunny. But the bunny now helped his side to reach the magic figure of 300. Broad hit three boundaries off successive overs as the two put on a vital 36 runs in 46 minutes before Steyn claimed his fourth wicket when he trapped Finn LBW for a spirited 12. Broad was unbeaten on 32 with all thoughts of his psychological issues with the bat long gone. 303 was a competitive total and with South Africa’s batting proving brittle in India, England were hopeful of a first innings lead.
When the South African openers came out to bat they did so knowing it was 10 innings since the team last posted a score of 250 or more. Stiaan van Zyl faced the first delivery from Stuart Broad. From around the wicket Broad then got his second delivery to come back in and it went right through a gate van Zyl left open and England had their first strike. The home captain was in far earlier than he would’ve liked, especially given his lack of form. Amla struggled for half an hour as Woakes took the new ball with Broad and encouraged him to flash at one which Bairstow just couldn’t hold onto.
Broad soon made sure it wasn’t a costly error as he found the edge and Bairstow hung on this time and the home side were 14-2. Broad’s opening spell was exactly what was required, 5-3-8-2 and continued from the miserly performance against Pakistan. De Villiers joined Elgar and the two set about reducing the arrears
The pair put on 86 for the third wicket as the 100 came up but then Broad again struck as he had de Villiers caught behind by Bairstow for 49. The home side had appeared to be building a decent platform but now they looked edgy and nervous with their two premier batsmen back in the pavilion and they were still over 200 behind.
Elgar’s response to losing his talismanic partner was to launch Moeen into the crowd but only a few overs later England’s spinner replied by tempting du Plessis into coming down the pitch, but the South African missed the ball which took his off bail.
Temba Bavuma, another player finding his way in test cricket, joined Elgar who’d already reached his half-century off 93 balls. The two negotiated their way to the close of play with South Africa 137-4, still 166 behind. The third day looked poised to be pivotal. South Africa needed these two to stay together for a while longer and then Duminy to get a good score, otherwise they could be conceding a crucial lead and Durban’s history tells you that’s decisive.
South Africa awoke to rumours of de Villiers looking to reduce his workload. Not a happy thought for a side so desperate for his runs. Broad began the third day, having bowled beautifully the day before. Second ball he got one to come back and Bavuma dragged a thick edge onto his leg stump. Disaster for the home side but Broad really was beginning to look the experienced star performer, in a way synonymous with that of Walsh, Ambrose, McGrath, Hadlee and Wasim Akram as they moved into their thirties.
Duminy was next in and was much needed by his team. One score of fifty in his last ten tests and only six single-figure scores during that time did not promise much, but it is seven years since he scored his maiden test century in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne in only his third innings. His country needed what a seven year test career can bring. Moeen replaced Finn and with his third ball be produced the perfect off-spinner’s dismissal. Pitching it on middle and off it turned, took the edge and Stokes gleefully took the catch. Duminy’s twenty-six minute innings had contributed just two runs.
Moeen could then have had Abbott within a couple of balls and England were well and truly on top, with the home side desperate for the bell to ring to give them some respite, just five overs into the day. In his next over Moeen encouraged an inside edge from Abbott onto his pad and James Taylor took a good catch low to the ground, diving forward from short-leg. The umpire didn’t give it but England reviewed and it was correctly overturned.
South Africa were 19-3 off 7.3 for the morning and in tatters, and Moeen looked as difficult to contend with as Ashwin had been barely a few weeks before. Elgar just went on his merry way, though and eventually brought up a very fine hundred. His fourth test ton came off 211 balls. Steyn was at least showing some stomach for the fight and he helped Elgar put on 54 before Moeen picked up his fourth wicket as he tempted Steyn to go for one big heave-ho too many and he holed out at mid-off where Woakes juggled the catch.
Cook took the new ball as soon as it was offered and after Broad challenged both batsmen from over and around the wicket, Finn began from the other end and Piedt nicked it to Bairstow straight away. Three balls later Morkel edged to Root at second slip and the innings was all done and dusted.
South Africa were all out for 214 and had conceded an 89-run deficit on first innings. Broad and Moeen were the stand-out performers with four wickets each with all the England bowlers playing their part. Dean Elgar carried his bat, the first South African since Gary Kirsten in 1997, for an excellent 118 and with de Villiers 49, the scorecard had a very lopsided look to it.
The morning session couldn’t have gone much better for the tourists as they picked up 6-77 in 29.1 overs.
When England batted again all thoughts went to how many the South Africans may have to chase. For a side so brittle of form anything above 250 looked too many and as if to emphasise how quickly they needed to regain some sort of initiative, Amla opened up with Steyn and Morkel.
Cook was off a pair second ball and then in Steyn’s fourth over he pulled up during his follow through holding his shoulder. Things were unravelling for the home side at an alarming pace as Steyn left the field. The two England openers were progressing nicely until Piedt tapped Cook in front with a straighter one and the England captain had two single figure scores for the match. Morkel’s opening spell was tight but without reward as news came through Steyn would be going for a scan.
Hales then marked his first test boundary with a six as he slog-swept Piedt, and then followed it with a four the next over. The debutant was beginning to open up (excuse the pun) and then to everyone’s surprise Steyn came back on the field. He was straight into the attack but lasted just three balls before he went off again. It was a strange occurrence and questions will be asked of the judgement which allowed their premier fast bowler to come back on so soon, thereby aggravating his injury. Steyn had left the India tour and it was clear they’d rushed him back too early & now they were playing with his career.
It took until the twenty-sixth over before the hosts had any joy when Hales picked out long on off Piedt for 26. He had looked to be taking control and credit must go to him for that, and he will learn at this level sometimes you can get ahead of yourself. Root came in and was soon given a life when de Villiers put down a relatively simple chance, right on the stroke of tea.
After the break Compton raised the bar by scoring a couple of boundaries when he had been distinctly circumspect previously. Root then slog-swept Piedt for six and the lead had been doubled. Elgar came on as Amla desperately shuffled his pack. It almost paid dividends too when Aleem Dar raised his finger thinking Compton had edged behind but the decision was overturned on review. The hundred came up with Root and Compton looking well set, and so van Zyl was the next cab on the bowling rank.
With an hour of the day to go England were 111-2 with a lead of 200 and opponents looking thoroughly ramshackle. Their fate seemed even more stark when de Villiers shelled another one off Compton as the Middlesex batsman neared another half-century. But this time the punishment wasn’t so severe and two balls later Morkel got Compton to nicked one down the leg-side and he was gone for 49. 85 and 49 in his comeback test was an impressive return and already his place at number three would seem up to him to lose.
The rest of the day belonged to Joe Root as he eased past yet another fifty, this time off 96 balls. The home attack looked placcid with Elgar and van Zyl bowling and things looked even more bleak when Duminy finished the day allowing England to cruise to 172-3 at the close and an extremely healthy lead of 261.
England began the day with a lead already more than South Africa had scored in any of their previous eleven innings. The home side were also going to be without Steyn for the rest of the match, and possibly the next. Root and Taylor looked very solid and in little trouble. So it was with some surprise when Abbott got Root to edge to van Zyl at first slip for 73. Root was annoyed with himself, although probably not because he narrowly failed to be the top scorer around the world in test cricket for 2015.
Stokes came in and reverse swept Piedt for four, but when he tried to repeat the shot a few balls later he top edged to Elgar for 5. Taylor was going along nicely and was now joined by Bairstow who wasted no time in hoisting Piedt over the deep square boundary.
The first hour definitely belonged to England but just after the first drinks break Taylor skipped down the pitch to one from Piedt and was stumped by de Villiers for a well-made 42. Bairstow reached 20 at a run-a-ball and Moeen began to enjoy himself too. The 300 lead was soon met as boundaries came thick and fast as Amla refused the new ball.
Then as lunch approached Piedt was again rewarded for his persistence after Bairstow swept him for two boundaries in his 31st over. But the final ball of the over saw him strike Moeen on the pad and after review he was given out for 16, with England 272-7. It completed Piedt’s first five-for in tests, although it had come at more than four-an-over. Woakes survived a king pair before lunch was taken with England on 275-7 with a lead of 364.
Bairstow wasted no time in reaching his fifty first ball after the resumption, which had come at a run-a-ball. Woakes soon got into his stride with two boundaries off a Kyle Abbott over as the 300 loomed. The 400 lead was achieved when Bairstow thumped a six off Piedt taking the bowler past his own 150. All eyes were on the declaration when Duminy took a terrific catch at short leg to snaffled Woakes for an entertaining 23 and England were 315-8.
Surely Cook would call them in now? But no, in came his premier fast bowler, Broad to score some runs seemingly surplus to requirements. He lasted two balls before he was caught driving van Zyl, who now had two wickets. Still no declaration as Finn came in, which gave Bairstow the opportunity to fire four and six off successive deliveries from Elgar before van Zyl’s next over tempted the Yorkshireman to pick out long on and the innings was finally over. Bairstow was out for a fine 79 off 76 balls. England were all out for 326 and set South Africa 416 to win.
It was clear there was probably the time to get the runs but could this batting line-up bat that long?
The South African openers began well with fifteen coming off Woakes’ first two overs. Finn replaced him and van Zyl helped himself to a couple of boundaries. The fifty came up in the tenth over as the intent was clear. Stokes then came on to bowl and in his second over he found the gap between van Zyl’s bat and pad and the first wicket was down for 53. Van Zyl had made an attractive 33 but much more was needed from a South African opener and so the captain came out with much on his shoulders.
The home side were going along at quite a lick as Elgar was adding to his first innings haul and at tea they were 65-1.
A boundary in each of the first three overs after tea showed South Africa were more interested in going for the target than just batting out the match. Finn replaced Broad and immediately tempted Amla to flash outside off-stump and the home skipper was gone for just 12. It was a vital blow for the tourists and much now depended on de Villiers. Then in Finn’s next over he got Elgar to edge to Root in the slips and South Africa were now 88-3 and the first innings centurion was back in the pavilion.
De Villiers then went about his business knowing the fortunes of the nation rested with him. Du Plessis at the other end seemed content to block, or unable to score effectively. South Africa reached three figures and things seemed a touch easier for them as Cook continued to rotate his bowlers.
As thoughts moved towards the close of play Moeen tempted de Villiers down the pitch and inexplicably Jonny Bairstow missed the stumping. Granted it wasn’t the easiest of chances and signified how long it was since England last took one. Scoring 416 to win a test match has been so unlikely throughout the history of test match cricket, but there are always moments when the bowling side, or perhaps their supporters, can just worry about the ‘what if?’
Finn came back on just as England seemed to be searching for a breakthrough when they really should’ve felt comfortable. As is his want he produced just the bit of magic required when he got one to bounce just that bit more than du Plessis expected and it found the shoulder of the bat and flew to Cook at first slip who held onto a sharp chance. Du Plessis’s stay at the crease has lasted 103 minutes yet contributed just 9 runs, but had enable de Villiers to score at a reasonable rate at the other end. Steyn came in as nightwatchman and only needed to survive for three balls and the fourth day came to an end.
South Africa ended the day 136-4 with still another 280 runs to get to win the game. It promised to be an enthralling final day as England were still in control. The home supporters were desperately hoping de Villiers could win the match for them, but much would depend on the help he’d get from Bavuma and Duminy.
The equation was quite simple. South Africa needed 280 runs, England needed six wickets.
Alistair Cook began with Moeen Ali. On radio commentary, England’s finest spinner for many a generation, Graeme Swann, was suggesting all Moeen needed to do was land it in the right place and let the pitch do the work. He explained once you get to day five and have a pitch which is worn then he didn’t worry about variations or too many different options, he just trusted the pitch to make every delivery different and he just needed to bowl it properly.
Moeen began round the wicket to de Villiers who defended the first two balls and then the third kept lower and hit him right in front of leg-stump. He reviewed it but as the decision from the umpire was out then it was a forlorn effort and England had, had the dream start with their opponents top-drawer batsman back in the pavilion before most had settled in their seats.
Bavuma came in with the daunting prospect of all his country’s hopes on his shoulders. But with just one score above fifty from his six previous test innings, those prospects weren’t great.
Finn bowled from the other end and Steyn managed to block him out before Moeen was back on again to have a go at Bavuma. Again it took three balls before the 25-year-old danced down the pitch, missed and this time Bairstow made no mistake with the stumping. He must have been bothered by missing the de Villiers stumping the previous evening, but now all was forgotten. Moeen had bowled nine balls and taken two wickets. It was a sensational start and the game was well and truly over as far as the hosts were concerned.
Two overs later with Finn steaming in to Steyn he knocked back his off stump for a brilliant wicket as Steyn was under the false impression his defences were sound. Three overs after that and Moeen trapped Abbott in front for a plumb LBW decision and this was now a procession.
South Africa were now 7-4 from 8.3 overs bowled in the morning.
Duminy then ‘entertained’ with some lovely strokes to bring boundaries but it had mattered more in the first innings had he been able to do that, than this time round but it made for some welcome relief. Woakes then came on and finally got his first wicket of the match when Piedt edged one onto his pads and it looped up for Taylor to take a simple chance from short leg. Broad then came round the wicket to Morkel and pinned him in front too and the big fast bowler was last man out.
South Africa had capitulated to 174 all out. In the innings they’d lost 38-7, following from 77-6 in the first innings. It’s not difficult to work out where their problems are, but if they believed their bowling attack was their strongpoint then the loss of Dale Steyn for the Cape Town test is a major blow.
England won by 241 runs, which in terms of runs was the third worst loss for South Africa at home since readmission. Moeen Ali won the Man of the Match for taking seven wickets in the match. It was a game where there were several good performances but no real stand-out. Compton batted longer than anyone on that pitch, Finn was irresistible at times and Bairstow’s second innings bash was a joy to watch.
For England this was the perfect performance having been put into bat. Away wins in test cricket aren’t that common these days and away wins after being put into bat are even rarer.
For South Africa they face the prospect of having to come from behind to beat England. England hasn’t lost a test series after winning the first test, since 1999.