I don’t know how it happened, but a few shepherds in the south of England invented a game some 250 years ago that fascinates and surprises to this day. In fact, it does more than that – cricket, certainly in its five-day format, rewards knowledge and thought with… mystery and paradox. Never more so than when bat and ball are jostling for supremacy with the ball having an edge. What to do? Why to do it? Is the risk worth the reward? In real time, you can play along with the men in white, not in some virtual reality simulacrum constructed with the bits and bytes of computers, but with the men, 50 yards away, playing the greatest of games.
At the start of play on Day Two, Joe Root knew that leaden skies in Nottingham would assist swing. Jimmy Anderson knew it too, and so did Vernon Philander and Chris Morris, the not out batsmen who had played so beautifully in the yellowy light of a summer evening some 17 hours earlier. Anderson, all subtle menace, the wrist cocked, the finger and thumb pressing the seam just so, the ball on the end of an invisible string as it snaked just far enough this way and that, ran through the South African tail, his figures on Saturday (July 15) a demolition derby 3.2-2-4-4. Root had got the right bowler on at the right end who had then bowled the right line and length, with just the right amount of nervous energy called upon. It was a perfect recipe to achieve a perfect result – South Africa 309 for 6 overnight, 335 all out.
Having seen half an hour of carnage, I felt sure that England would have to bat with circumspection, leaving as much as possible, playing the ball with soft hands and focusing on getting through to lunch and the brighter skies forecast for the afternoon. Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings appeared to agree, but Philander and Morne Morkel had other ideas, the former swinging and seaming it like a Lancashire League pro from the 1950s, the latter doing a reasonable impression of Stuart Broad in a streaky spell. England were 3 for 2, a wicket each for the South Africans and Root taking guard – the innings not five overs old.
Root played shot after shot after shot, almost everything out of the middle, his cue Quinton de Kock’s mini-masterpiece on Day One. In his half? Drive. On a length? Punch. Short of a length? Pull or cut. As ever, Root’s balance was perfect, the timing sublime, the result a scoreboard that rattled along, lunch taken with England 85 for 2, with Root on 52 from 43 balls and Gary Ballance, under pressure, but catching his skipper’s mood, 26 off 34. The counterattack had turned around a dire situation and Root had been rewarded with runs for his willingness to take a risk or two. Well, more than two.
Root’s chutzpah affected two other elements of the game too. Faf du Plessis changed his bowlers, giving Philander and Morkel a breather after five overs each in what looked like a planned move. Whether worked out the night before or not, it looked contrary when they were bowling so well, but the flurry of Root boundaries certainly gave du Plessis a reason to get Morris and Duanne Olivier into the match and series. Predictably – as was the case when England’s support seamers were bowling – life was easier for the batsmen against the second string.
Root fell for a splendid 78 off 76 balls, his approach setting the tone for England’s response to adversity, possibly not just in this match, but under his captaincy. It would be hard for any batsman to go into his shell, bottled up, when the leader has favoured the bold. Of course, it won’t work for everyone – not least because few have the gifts Root calls upon with bat in hand – but those batsmen who favour a naturally attacking game? Well – off you go.
Moeen Ali’s first ball was a case in point, swatted contemptuously into the open spaces at midwicket for four, 168 for 5 being treated as if it were 468 for 5. The cliché about living by the sword is a cliché because it’s true, as Moeen demonstrated with as airy-fairy a drive as you will ever see, pouched by du Plessis at point, Morris (another unusual choice to resume after tea) the successful bowler. He then immediately sent back Broad, the tall man delivering a yorker to another tall man a handy tactic.
Maharaj’s wickets owed plenty to his captain’s intuition – nobody saw a spinner playing a key role at Trent Bridge before the Test had even reached the halfway mark. Except du Plessis, who tossed the ball to Maharaj who snared Ben Stokes with an edge juggled by Quinton de Kock who kept his eye on the ball, then turned a beauty past the groping bat of Jonny Bairstow, something nobody saw coming – least of all the batsman. He later picked up a slogging Liam Dawson too. It was a great call just before tea by a captain whose bowling choices before lunch had raised eyebrows but whose faith in his spinner and fierce allrounder was repaid by three scalps each for Maharaj and Morris. The M People were moving on up in their captain’s estimation.
Root’s fearlessness as a batsman and leader won’t always work, but who is to say that alternatives would? The shots England played were not mindless, but positive, orthodoxy favoured over unorthodoxy. No side is shot out in 52 overs without some personal culpability, but du Plessis juggled his bowlers with imagination and flair and, while both captains promoted aggressive cricket by vesting confidence in their charges, the South African’s men responded with skill and commitment to put themselves into a commanding position.
Du Plessis’s reward for a day of decisions paying off pretty much from dawn to dusk in a superb team effort was a dominant mini-session in which England looked like a demoralised side and South Africa cashed in to the tune of 75 runs in 100 minutes for the loss of just one wicket on a pitch that had yielded 231 runs for 14 wickets in the previous five hours.
The visitors will look to seal the deal over the next two days; England will look to gain a toehold to arrest what appears to be a swift slide to defeat and a square series heading to The Oval.