Cook and Amla hundreds lead South Africa

South Africa 329 for 5 (Bavuma 32*, de Kock 25*) v England
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Amla and Cook thrive as England bowlers toil

South Africa shook off a week of introspection by taking two centuries off a flaccid England attack on a satisfying opening to the final Test in Centurion. Hashim Amla found his innings so untaxing that he might have made it in his sleep; Stephen Cook must have imagined every step of his so vividly that there would have been times when sleep was hard to find.

The series has been lost, South Africa are about to relinquish their No. 1 Test ranking to India, and five changes from the side that lost in Johannesburg told of the uncertainty afflicting their cricket, but they hold the upper hand here.

For Amla, a 25th Test hundred was an unburdening after a sequence of low scores which contributed to him conceding the captaincy. For Cook, the unburdening came with opportunity, a Test debut at 33, one he grasped so desirously that he became the 100th batsman to make a century on Test debut. Two – Lawrence Rowe and Yasir Hameed – even had the audacity to do it twice in the match.

Why is it that 100 Test batsmen, previously unchosen, have now trodden this path? There is often an advantage that bowlers have had no time to explore their deficiencies, but most influential of all must be the hunger that runs through their veins.

England will rue the life offered 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 the untroubled assembly of a second-wicket stand worth 202 in 53 overs.

Both will be frustrated that they failed to cement South Africa’s authority, dismissed in identical manner, playing on, in a final session where England belatedly became attuned to their task. Amla, even at his must luxuriant, does not always concern himself with the gap between bat and pad and it was a sizeable one as he hung his bat limply against Ben Stokes. Chris Woakes silenced Cook – an indeterminate drive at a rising delivery.

Amla’s sixth Test hundred against England was replete with poised off-side drives as England’s bowlers repeatedly erred in length. Cook, too, a sober-minded sort, played with a fluency that he has not always attained during his career as he has built an image of a steady accumulator. South Africa zipped along for much of the day above four an over.

Four wickets in all in the final session, all with the old ball, gave England hope. AB de Villiers’ defensive jab at Stuart Broad flew to Joe Root at second slip, his second successive duck and the 10th time Broad has dismissed him in 14 Tests. JP Duminy, ambitiously high at No. 5 despite his recent double hundred in domestic cricket, then pulled at Moeen Ali’s offspin and was lbw to a straight one.

It was left to Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock to re-establish South Africa’s authority against the second new ball, their unbroken stand of 56 coming with a relaxed air that belied South Africa’s anxiety to bring their losing run to an end.

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.

England’s only success on the first two sessions 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’s offspin was given an outing in the first hour and Elgar, as is his wont when spin makes an appearance, 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 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 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 join others in wondering 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.

A nervous hour was passed in the 90s, his mood not settled by an extended tea interval because part of the outfield had been soddened by a leaking drain – a suitable metaphor for England’s attack. On 98, he then survived an England review by virtue of an umpire’s call as Stokes swung a ball of full-length back into his pads. He clipped the next ball wide of mid-on; hundred achieved. Considering South Africa’s needs, he seems the sort likely to stick around for a while.

Cook and Amla were assisted 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. 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 he was no closer by the close, swing again eluding him. Woakes, the replacement for the injured Steven Finn, who had been the best England bowler in the series, one hot flush from Broad apart, had not bowled since the first Test in Durban and was in dire form, length and line awry, disappearing at five an over until he redressed matters slightly after tea.

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. England’s batsmen will have to outstrip the standards of the bowlers to threaten them from here.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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