England were pleased with their efforts on day one of the third Test in Port Elizabeth, confident that a late stand between Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope had tipped the scales back in their favour against South Africa.
The tourists closed on 224 for four on a lethargic St George’s Park pitch that hampered fluent strokeplay and forced bowlers to labour hard for results.
The game could have gone in a number of directions, Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley batting through the morning session to put the early pressure on the hosts, who then fought back to make it 148 for four.
Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope's unbeaten 76-run partnership helps England finish day one of the third #SAvENG Test on 224/4.
— ICC (@ICC) January 16, 2020
Joe Root was the last of the top order to fall, Kagiso Rabada charging in and springing his off stump with one that kept lower than the England captain expected, leaving things firmly in the balance.
Not for the first time Stokes took it upon himself to assume control and he put on an unbroken 76 with Pope, who struck the ball more sweetly than any of his colleagues as he dashed a series of late boundaries.
Early wickets on day two could still scupper their good work but opener Crawley was satisfied with the state of play at stumps.
“I think it was a very good day for us, Popey and Stokesy played brilliantly at the end to put us in a good position,” he said.
“It was very attritional cricket, a slow wicket and tough to score on. But if we can get in the late 300s that’s a very good score on this pitch. It’s only going to get worse from there and continue to spin quite a bit. Hopefully a few will go underground like Joe’s did and we can bowl last on it and bowl well.”
There was no denying the importance of the tonal shift ushered in by Stokes and Pope, who finished unbeaten on 38 and 39 respectively, but that does nothing to undermine Crawley’s hard-working knock of 44 at the top.
Playing just his fourth international innings he shelved his natural instincts to grind down the Proteas for just under 49 overs. It was unspectacular stuff but the kind of graft demanded of openers on stodgy surfaces.
“It was a struggle but I enjoyed it,” the 21-year-old said.
“It’s probably against my natural game. If I had the choice I’d be a free-scorer but you’re playing for England: you’ve got to play the situation. I was more than happy to block a few out there.
“I think I played well, but to say I did my job…once you get to 40 ideally you want to go on and get a big one.
“Hopefully that’s what I’ll do next time I get to 40. But I thought I played quite nicely so I’ll take something from it.”
South Africa bowling coach Charl Langeveldt defended the decision to throw the new ball to debutant Dane Paterson rather than the usual leader of the attack, Rabada.
💯/💯 for that wicket💯/💯 for that energy💯/💯 for that celebration
— Cricket South Africa (@OfficialCSA) January 16, 2020
The plan fell flat as the absence of Rabada’s pace appeared to surrender the early initiative.
“KG is wonderful with the new ball but the captain and the management felt we would go with Paterson because he bowls a fuller length and makes the batsmen play more,” he said.
“Pato brings something different to the party. But everyone’s got an opinion – your opinion, my opinion, the public will have an opinion.
“We always look to strike with the new ball but with a bit of moisture in the pitch we felt we should go with the fuller length. KG will take the new ball in the second innings.”