England hit back after Dean Elgar, Rassie van der Dussen fifties

England 262 for 9 (Pope 56*) v South Africa

There is no precise antonym for the word “ruthless”: like “nonplussed”, “disgruntled” and “underwhelmed”, it is considered by linguistics scholars to be an unpaired adjective due to the lack of a word with a perfectly opposite meaning.

But if academics can find a way to condense England’s batting performance on the first day of the Newlands Test into an adjective, they will finally have found a solution to their problem. If one batsman in the top seven failing to convert a start into a telling contribution might be considered careless, seeing five of them do it suggests a much deeper issue.

England’s players have taken to calling this their “cursed” tour, with injury and illness ruining their preparation for both the first and second Tests, but their failure to reach an imposing first-innings total here was largely self-inflicted: having won the toss and chosen to bat first on a fairly placid surface, Joe Root was one of several senior batsmen to get in and get out as South Africa had much the better of the first day. Only Ollie Pope, who made a calm, unbeaten half-century, managed to produce something approaching a match-altering score.

For as much as the home side impressed with a disciplined bowling performance – and their change bowlers, Anrich Nortje and Dwaine Pretorius, were both particularly unerring – there were few magic balls, and instead a series of shots that hinted at a lack of concentration or a failure to take advantage of an ideal situation.

Rory Burns’ ankle injury on the eve of the game saw Zak Crawley come into the side for his second Test to open alongside Dom Sibley – not since since 1963 have England had a less-experienced opening pair (excluding nightwatchmen) – as part of perhaps their most adverbial top three ever, with Joe Denly in at No. 3. Crawley was given a brutal working-over in his brief stay at the crease: Vernon Philander hammered the off-stump channel on a length before nudging a fraction fuller, like a precision engineer, and finding the outside edge.

Philander, in his final Test at the ground that has been so good to him, continued to probe just outside the off stump, testing Sibley’s open stance and leg-side-dominant game as he regularly beat his prodded defensive shots.

And despite looking more confident and settled at the crease on his way to his highest Test score to date – even unfurling his cover drive within the first hour – Sibley fell in disappointing fashion for the second consecutive innings. Pretorius put the brakes on with three maidens in his first four overs, and Kagiso Rabada reaped the rewards at the other end, drawing an outside edge which Quinton de Kock snaffled.

Nortje made the next breakthrough in a hostile spell. Denly had battled doggedly, but found himself tied down against Keshav Maharaj in particular, taking 49 balls to get past 21, and was hit on the helmet by a sharp bouncer off the fifth ball of Nortje’s second over after lunch. With Nortje’s speeds nudging past the 90mph/145kph mark, he also had Root camped deep in his crease on the back foot.

Root pushed hard at a back-of-a-length ball in the channel, but lived to tell the tale as Rassie van der Dussen put down his third chance of the series – just like the last two occasions, he was unsighted by de Kock’s dive in front of him. But it was hardly a costly drop: two balls later, Nortje aimed a bullet at Root’s left shoulder, and as the batsman flinched to get underneath it, he gloved it through to the gleeful wicketkeeper.

Denly’s turgid innings was ended seven overs later, as Maharaj pushed through an arm ball which burst between bat and pad to take the top of his off stump. England’s No. 3 has reached double figures 19 times in his 22 Test innings, but his 94 against Australia at The Oval remains his most-significant contribution.

Four years on – to the day – from his 258 not out on the ground, Ben Stokes looked in fine touch throughout his innings, hitting Maharaj for a towering six over wide mid-on, but was became the latest England batsman to give his wicket away cheaply when he tamely chipped a low catch to Dean Elgar at extra cover to hand Nortje his second wicket and South Africa their fifth with the score still 15 runs short of 200.

Jos Buttler had signalled his intent to play with more positivity in the build-up to this Test and was true to his word, hitting a flurry of boundaries as he looked to counterattack, getting across to the off side in an attempt to throw the unerring Pretorius off his line. But Pretorius plugged away, shifting his line wider, and produced a gem of a delivery with the old ball to see the back of Buttler, with a hint of movement away off the seam to find an edge.

He struck again with the old ball to affirm South Africa’s advantage, angling one in from round the wicket as Sam Curran shouldered arms, only to find his off stump cartwheeling towards fine leg.

When Philander struck with the new ball, drawing Dom Bess into a tame push first ball to one that moved sharply away off the seam, and Rabada accounted for Stuart Broad with a searing yorker, it was down to Pope to free his arms with only James Anderson for company. An uppercut and a club down the ground – worth four each – were the pick of the shots, and he brought up his second Test fifty with a pull in front of square when shepherding the tail.

He was given a reprieve late in the piece, holing out to Philander at long leg only to discover Rabada had overstepped, and Faf du Plessis was visibly frustrated by a seven-over partnership that ensured England will resume on the second morning.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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