Faf du Plessis won the toss and almost certainly inwardly sighed, presented with a tough decision before he had so much as donned his whites in earnest for a Test match in England. What to do at Trent Bridge with a downward look that says “bat” and an upward look that says “bowl”. The returning captain, back on tour after his wife’s difficult birth back home, and with plenty of bowling available for a fourth-innings assault, settled on having a bat on day one of the second Test on Friday (July 14) and Joe Root, no doubt smirking, claimed that he would have bowled anyway.
It was a tough gig for his openers. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad – with 53 wickets at 20 and 34 wickets at 19 respectively at this ground – swung the ball at pace and with control, seeing off both openers by the time the score had reached 66. Dean Elgar had been caught early on in spectacular fashion by Liam Dawson. Heino Kuhn, demonstrating considerable physical courage allied to a solid technique, accumulated 34 tough runs and did a job for his skipper.
And then the game changed completely.
Quinton de Kock, having shown due respect by playing himself in for a few minutes at least, started middling the ball with percussive precision, the crack of ball on bat a sound that tells you who is on strike without the inconvenience of looking. In at No. 4, the wicketkeeper looked completely at home, the power off the blade hard to attribute to the small, slight figure at the crease. There is something of the young Brian Lara about the 24-year-old South African, the rat-a-tat-tat of leather on boundary board spreading the fielders and then wrists and touch finding gaps for singles. Root went to a 7-2 field and instructed his bowlers to hang the ball outside off-stump in an attempt to choke off the runs – but QdK still found a way through.
In his slipstream, Hashim Amla, ten years older than his partner, the team’s senior pro but a player said to be on the slide from his exalted standards of a few years ago, simply purred from over to over. Not that anyone would have dared voice any negative opinion of Amla on an afternoon decorated by exquisite cover-drives and delicate touches to fine-leg. This was a different kind of genius from QdK’s incandescent talent at the other end, a genius born of thousands of hours in the middle and thousands more in the nets. At 24, Amla was working out his method to play Test match bowling, after an early start blighted by an -eccentric back-lift leading to a less than ramrod straight bat. The Amla pick-up retains vestiges of that homespun technique, but the quirks are long since buried under the weight of 8000 runs, a milestone warmly applauded by a typically generous English crowd.
Tea could not come quickly enough for England, who had no answer to the mercurial and the methodical, the afternoon session going for 123 in 29 overs (and the wicket of Kuhn). England had recalibrated what would be a good South Africa innings for them, probably adding 100 to the 300 par score the first session suggested.
One ball into the evening’s play, that calculation changed again, QdK slashing at a wide one to be caught by a delighted, no doubt surprised, Alastair Cook at slip, gone for 68 from 81 balls. The partnership had realised 113 runs at 4.61 runs per over in just under two hours of compelling cricket, the stand the first ever to cross three-figures for the pair, in the first match in which QdK batted at No. 4. Six overs later, Amla, whom England had fancied getting on the hook all day, lifted a Broad bouncer into the safe hands of Mark Wood at deep square-leg, 78 runs his contribution to the cause.
The two contrasting batsmen, left and right-hander representing two generations of South African cricketers, had made tricky conditions look easy and experienced bowlers look like novices – and entertained a full house royally. The next highest innings of the day was Vernon Philander’s impressive 54 not out constructed in shadow slanting sunlight, the best batting conditions of the day. The South African card was an indication of how well the visitors’ No. 3 and No. 4 had played – and a measure of the task England’s batsmen faced when their turn rolls round, especially if Big Vern gets some cloud cover to work with when he swaps bat for ball.