Cook and Amla plunder wayward England

Tea South Africa 224 for 1 (Cook 91*, Amla 102*) v England
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Stephen Cook helps SA to strong start

Hashim Amla preyed upon a flaccid England bowling performance with one of his less taxing Test hundreds on the opening day at Centurion and, by tea, Stephen Cook was threatening to join him, as he moved within nine runs of joining the ranks of those who have made a Test hundred at the first time of asking.

England will rue the offering of a life to both batsmen – Amla on 5 and Cook on 47, and both of them fixing further attention on the wicketkeeping of Jonny Bairstow – but that should not deflect from South Africa’s easy-going dominance as they built a formidable position in the final Test.

Amla’s sixth Test hundred against England – and his 25th in all – was replete with poised off-side drives as England’s bowlers repeatedly offered the sort of deliveries he can despatch in his sleep. Here was a batsman unburdening himself with every satisfying ping of the blade. Cook, too, played with a fluency that he has not always attained during his career as he has built an image of a steady accumulator.

A Test debut at the ripe old age of 33 is something to take seriously. Cook was never going to regard it any other way. From the moment that Cook too guard at SuperSport Park, and despatched his first ball in Test cricket – a half volley from James Anderson – to the boundary, an air of gravitas descended upon the start of the final Test in Centurion.

England’s only success after they had lost the toss came from an astounding short leg catch – another one to follow two superb efforts in Johannesburg – by James Taylor.

Taylor’s catch to dismiss Dean Elgar left the batsman with hands on hips in disbelief. Moeen Ali’s off-spin was given an outing in the first hour and Elgar, as he likes to do, came down the pitch to his fourth delivery with attacking intent. The ball flew forcefully to the leg side and, as Taylor moved sharp-wittedly with the batsman, the ball lodged in his midriff.

Where was it? When the ball released and headed towards ground, Taylor had the instinct to clamp his legs together and somehow trapped it between right ankle and thigh. After much wrapping of hands round legs, he finally found it. England’s Danger Mouse, standing where many fear to tread, had come up with the goods again.

Amla’s let-off came late in the morning session when Ben Stokes found the edge but Alastair Cook put down a tough catch at first slip as Bairstow, initially moving towards the leg-side for no good reason before switching direction, and diving across his sightline.

Bairstow’s blemish in the third over of the afternoon was in similar vein. This time Stuart Broad was the unfortunate bowler as he found Cook’s edge, the ball died low once more and Bairstow made strong contact but failed to hold on. If the errors persist, England will soon wonder if his preferable role is as a specialist batsman. Jos Buttler, though, is bound for the IPL.

Cook’s diligence, that escape apart, remained uninterrupted. He batted conscientiously, moving across to off stump and picking off the leg-side gaps. Occasionally, he was invited to risk a pleasing off-side drive. It was a methodology that has brought him much success in South African domestic cricket and it soothed the wounds of South Africa’s recent failures.

Cook was helped by a stodgy surface – hard to bear after the pace of the Wanderers a few miles down the road in the previous Test – and an England attack unable to summon much vigour. AB de Villiers’ pre-Test assertion that England had top-order weaknesses and that at least one component of their pace attack – Anderson – was highly-skilled, but down on pace, looked what it was: less a declaration of war as a reasonable statement of the facts.

Anderson needed three wickets to go past Richard Hadlee into seventh place in the Test wickets list, but there was little suggestion in the morning session that they would come easily. Chris Woakes, the replacement for the injured Steven Finn, had not bowled since the first Test in Durban and was in dire form, length and line awry; 13 overs from him by tea had cost 65 runs.

The series had been lost and South Africa had relinquished their No. 1 Test ranking in the process. They felt obliged to make wholesale changes. As well as Cook’s debut, there were also recalls for JP Duminy, Quinton de Kock, Kyle Abbott and Dane Piedt. Duminy at No. 5 looked an opportunity for England: their problem was getting that far.

As far as Cook’s father, watching intently from the stands, was concerned, Cook’s Test debut at 33 made him a mere stripling compared to Jimmy himself who was 39 when he made his Test debut against India, got a first-baller and played only twice more. Few batsmen of such quality have been so lightly rewarded.

South Africa’s record in Tests at Centurion is outstanding – except in Tests against England. They have won 15 out of 20 matches at the venue, with just two defeats, most recently against a Mitchell Johnson-inspired Australia in 2014.

As Amla passed 50 with a sumptuous drive against Woakes’ half volley, Cook looked entirely untroubled, and England resorted to bowling negatively to a packed off-side field, there was little to challenge South Africa’s rising hopes that the ground can still serve them well yet again.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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