Proteas

SA’s rookies sag in the shadows

Chris Morris (Gallo Images)
Chris Morris (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - The last time South Africa played England in a Test match at Newlands (2009/10), their specialist bowling attack possessed a healthy, combined 218 caps.

It would have been roughly another 100 more, too, had an ageing Makhaya Ntini not given a notably poor performance (0/114) only a few days earlier in the Boxing Day encounter, when the Proteas were thumped by an innings in the second Test.

That game marked the end of the once-illustrious career in the format of the Mdingi Express.

So the host nation went into the blue-chip New Year fixture with an attack comprising Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Friedel de Wet, Paul Harris and all-rounder Jacques Kallis, and were only denied a swift bounce-back victory by some famous tail-end resistance late on day five from England No 11 Graham Onions - coincidentally for the second time in the series.

Fast forward to the present, and South Africa fielding three members of a reduced, four-man frontline bowling unit who had not played even a solitary prior Test match between them on home soil, and Morkel holding the lopsided share (69) of a dangerously thin combined tally of 78 appearances.

It was difficult not to suspect that if England won the toss - as Alastair Cook duly did - on a sparkling Capetonian day their naivety as a unit might be exposed pretty quickly, particularly with Chris Morris on Test debut.

But inexperience doesn’t necessarily translate into automatic disaster and at various times during the course of Saturday’s first day’s play in the second Test, a bit of grit, back-bending industry and pure enthusiasm almost saw the presently labouring national side seize a crucial, morale-rectifying grip on proceedings.

Almost.

Instead by the close England were ruling the roost with fresh menace and majesty, and their formidable army of visiting supporters revelling in a damaging last hour or so of smouldering stroke-play from Ben Stokes – the kind of all-rounder this country ironically used to produce in bucketloads – and Jonny Bairstow.

The flame-haired pair’s rapid, unbroken sixth-wicket alliance of 94 in just 19.1 overs, including a savage assault on the new ball as the shadows lengthened over the idyllic venue, did a lot more than restore the balance: it may well have triggered a fresh wave of angst in a fragile South African dressing room.

Alviro Petersen, not long retired from a perpetually distinguished period in the Proteas’ Test history, tweeted shortly before stumps that he felt 350 was “par on this pitch”.

If that is indeed the case, England are all but there already, considering that they ended on 317 for five, with Stokes and Bairstow doubtless fancying a bit more of the same cavalier spirit on Sunday morning and capable men like Moeen Ali and Stuart Broad still to come to the crease.

Certainly if the tourists push on past 400, pressure will only intensify on a South African batting line-up perplexingly low on collective confidence and weight of runs in recent months.

All of the callow threesome of Proteas bowlers – Morris, Kagiso Rabada and Dane Piedt – will have been left under no illusions after day one about how much tougher and less forgiving Test cricket is to domestic first-class fare.

Every now and then, after all, they were right on the money for competency to the cause, and it is one of life’s mysteries why Morkel, so heavily the senior member of the attack, was not handed greater responsibility for the workload at times by Hashim Amla when the others strayed from their disciplines or simply came under the cosh because the petrol had depleted from their tanks ... a phenomenon that noticeably afflicted Morris and Rabada in the third session after exemplary speed-gun readings in earlier combat.

The 20-year-old Rabada richly deserved to grab three of the five wickets to fall on a surface that had good carry but is likely to dry at a rate of knots in an unrelenting, likely combination of sunshine and south-easter over the remaining few days and be genuinely receptive to spin at the business end.

When you consider that the unassuming, level-headed youngster admitted afterwards “I didn’t feel great rhythm”, it makes you appreciate just what a handful he will be in the future and when ... well, he does feel he’s got the necessary rhythm.

Morris took significantly more “tap” and was harshly dealt with when he bowled rogue, release deliveries to batsmen, but the scalp of Joe Root and a blinding catch at slip is still not the worst way to negotiate your opening day in the Test landscape.

It is advantage England again, in a slightly ominous development so soon after the scars of Durban.

But don’t yet completely rule out that maybe, just maybe, South Africa’s kids will turn out OK here ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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