Root and Stokes counterattack after England slip

Tea England 162 for 4 (Root 60*, Stokes 38*) trail South Africa 313 (Elgar 46, Stokes 3-53) by 151 runs
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Viljoen enjoys dream start

South Africa’s quartet of fast bowlers put England under considerable pressure on the second afternoon at The Wanderers in a riveting Test packed with good-quality, combative cricket. If England were to clinch the series with victory in Johannesburg, it was abundantly clear that they would need to summon one of their outstanding performances of recent years.

By tea, England trailed by 151 runs with six wickets standing. Two were lost in the middle session – Nick Compton and James Taylor – to leave South Africa in assertive mood at 91 for 4 before Joe Root and Ben Stokes counter-attacked with skill and resolve, their unbroken stand at tea amounting to 71 in only 8.5 overs.

Root passed 50 for the sixth time in nine completed innings – the first half-century in the match – attacking width with relish and pulling confidently, hankering after the big score that has eluded him since 130 against Australia at Trent Bridge in August. Stokes, following his impact innings in Cape Town, was welcomed by two fearsome deliveries from Morne Morkel and responded with customary vigour.

The Bullring, as so often, was an examination of character and courage for a Test batsman. A pitch of pace and bounce, offering opportunity for bowlers and batsmen alike, made the cricket compelling. It was a wonderful surface and it was fast becoming an enriching Test. Bethuel Buthelezi, who took over as head groundsman last November, and whose first job 30 years ago was cleaning the tennis courts, had cause for delight.

South Africa bowled with a conviction that a change of captain, in AB de Villiers, will bring a change of fortune as they seek to peg back a 1-0 deficit in the series.

Hardus Viljoen made a memorable entrance to Test cricket when he claimed the scalp of England’s captain Alastair Cook with his first delivery – and on his home turf. The achievement was quite something, even if the delivery itself was unexceptional, a loosener down the leg side which Cook nibbled at, for wicketkeeper Dane Vilas, making his first appearance in a home Test, to take a diving catch.

Viljoen came with a big billing – the wild bull in the Bullring. In his two exploratory overs before lunch, he did not quite crank the pace up to the 150kph-plus of which he has been deemed capable, but he was enough of an unknown quantity for Cook, a habitual wafter down the leg side, to fall once again in a manner that has troubled him since the tour of the UAE in November. Sixty runs in five knocks left England’s captain in pensive mood when he returned to the viewing area.

To know how fast Viljoen really bowls, it might be best not to rely on a speed gun that, to judge by its inconsistent readings, had been found in a Christmas cracker. But as the day progressed predictions seemed a little overstated.

If the notable statistic went to Viljoen, much of the skill rested with Kagiso Rabada. He bowled superbly, repeatedly leaving the right-hander, beginning with a morning spell of 6-3-7-1, picking off Alex Hales by exposing a lack of footwork with one that left him slightly. Hales’ naïve drive ended up in the hands of second slip, the first single-figure score in the match. Suggestions that Rabada is interested in a brief spell in English county cricket should have coaches scrambling to find out more.

Compton began with his usual dourness. Six runs dripped by in 45 balls, at which point de Villiers, of all people, dropped an inviting chance off Morkel at second slip. Compton was encouraged into a spurt forward, particularly against Viljoen, and seemed to have settled but edged a back-foot force against Rabada to second slip where this time Dean Elgar held on.

When Taylor thrust blindly at his first ball, England looked unnerved. In an attempt to flay a boundary, his bat flew past a startled Temba Bavuma at short leg. The next time Bavuma sensed anything in his range it was the ball – arriving via Taylor’s inside edge and body – and an excellent catch at the second attempt brought Morkel the reward.

The Test was now at its most physical. Root, on 35, would have been run out by Stokes’ straight drive if Morkel had managed to get a finger on the ball; Stokes, sent back by Root as he sought a single on the on side, would have been run out by a direct hit. If all Test cricket was like this it would remove the pessimism surrounding the most traditional form of the game.

Earlier, South Africa had been dismissed for 313 in their first innings, after England had been frustrated by yet more resistance from a lower order that added a further 46 runs to their overnight 267 for 7.

From a precarious 225 for 7, South Africa’s last three wickets amassed a grand total of 88 runs in 25 overs. James Anderson was removed from the attack by umpire Aleem Dar for running on the pitch – one infringement the previous night, two this morning – but his replacement Stokes immediately brought the innings to a halt when he had Morkel caught at slip.

England’s fightback on the first day had reduced South Africa to 235 for 7 by the advent of the second new ball, but Chris Morris and Rabada had added 32 runs in the final eight overs to take the lustre off by the close.

A night’s rest, though, had put a zip back in England’s step. Broad and Anderson were restored as England’s go-to pair – Steven Finn had taken the second new ball, in recognition of his own good day and Broad’s fatigue – but the runs kept flowing.

England could hardly afford further merriment. They broke through in the third over of the day, Morris beaten on the drive by Broad and Jonny Bairstow holding the edge. Rabada followed to Anderson in the following over in identical fashion, a relief for the bowler who has yet to make an impression on the series after missing the first Test in Cape Town because of injury.

Bairstow equalled the record for catches in a Test innings at The Wanderers, a sizeable list also including another former England keeper Jack Russell. A share of the world record eluded him, though, when he failed to hold a fast but takeable catch above his head when Morkel slashed at Anderson.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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