England left banking on another stirring comeback as South Africa take charge of first Test

·3-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Anyone who watched any of England’s first four Tests of the summer has learnt not to write them off. They have shown an uncanny ability to turn around tight spots.

In their fifth Test of the summer, the first against South Africa, they are in another of those tight spots. Thanks to a terrific seventh-wicket partnership of 72 from the unlikely pair of Marco Jansen and Keshav Maharaj, South Africa are 289 for seven in response to England’s 165.

England were mighty grateful for the wicket of Maharaj, consciously accelerating, in the penultimate over of the day. Stranger things have happened than them winning from this position in the summer of 2022, but they are back in miracle territory.

That their position is even this good is down to a stirring comeback in the final session, which was only partly checked by the seventh-wicket stand.

It was sparked by Jack Leach but led by Ben Stokes, who fought through pain to find a five-over spell of two for 14. He picked up the excellent Sarel Erwee with a brutish short ball, then Rassie van der Dussen with a skilful fuller ball.

That final session went some way to covering for three modest sessions before that. The first, in extremely tricky conditions for batting on Wednesday, saw them fall to 116 for six against South Africa’s excellent attack.

On the second morning, they added 49 which, with a long tail, was not a disaster. That they did not get more was down to the fact that Ollie Pope could add just 12 to his overnight 61 before playing on to Kagiso Rabada, who finished with a terrific five-fer. Pope looked to accelerate the score, and had already been dropped. With no-one else getting beyond 20, England were mighty grateful for their young No3.

There were cameos from Stuart Broad, entertaining as ever, and Jack Leach, but England were never getting far without Pope. Leach was bowled by Jansen, while Rabada picked up the rest to secure a spot on the honours board.

With the ball, and with little to defend, England made a sloppy start. South Africa’s openers, Dean Elgar and Erwee, shared 85 either side of lunch, with few alarms and plenty of boundaries, especially from the captain’s bat.

Later in the day, there were milestone wickets for James Anderson, with his first since his 40th birthday (no specialist England seamer has done that since Les Jackson in 1961), and Stuart Broad, who now has 100 at Lord’s.

But, after five weeks without cricket, both men were a little rusty. Anderson was quicker into his work, and gave the openers more headaches. His wicket eventually came, just when England were getting desperate, and was not how he would have imagined it; Elgar watched disbelievingly as he played on, off the pad, bat and just about everything else. Anderson did not mind.

South Africa did what England never could, and always found a partnership. Keegan Peterson stuck with Erwee for a 53-run stand, before edging Matt Potts – loose until then – to third slip. Then Aiden Markram took South Africa to tea in a stand of 32.

With his first ball of the evening session, Leach had Markram wafting behind to set England on their way. He found turn, some purchase from the surface, and bowled with good control.

Stokes, sensing the moment, took on the burden of bowling despite his sore knee, and found a snorter to bounce out Erwee, the simplest catch of a smart day of keeping for Ben Foakes.

Stokes pinned van der Dussen, then Broad had Kyle Verreyne – batting a position lower than carded – caught behind. Jansen and Maharaj started slowly, but were soon kicking on, with 16 taken from a Stokes over. Maharaj took one risk too many, and was taken at midwicket to give Stokes a third. A strong morning is required if this game is to stay in their grasp.