It says a lot about this series – and indeed Test cricket played by England and played in South Africa – that in just 54.2 overs there is much to compute.
Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley put on England’s first opening century stand since 103 between Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings, over three years and 70 innings ago.
Crawley brought up a maiden half-century, hitting down the ground and through the covers with the serenity of a batsman far beyond his 21 years. This was only his 15th score over 50 in first-class cricket, because the nine fours in the 80 balls it took to get to the milestone were an indication of potential beyond an average of 34.78 in the Championship last year.
His 66, which should have been much more, continued his sequence of improving on every previous score (1, 4, 24, 44) and perhaps the one comfort from his edge to first slip while trying to remove his bat from outside off stump is he has left himself room to extend the run.
Joe Denly played a remarkably Joe Denly innings without making it to 100 deliveries. A skewed drive in and then out of the right hand of a diving Pieter Malan at cover-point gave him a life on four. An inside edge just over the stumps allowed him another on 17. On 25, he rocked back and struck a picture-perfect pull shot right through the hands of fielder Dwayne Pretorious.
But on 27, he edged Dane Patterson to Rassie van der Dussen at first slip. And though South Africa’s new number three – at least for this match – has dropped a few in this series, he made no mistake this time.
Nor did he when Ben Stokes, uncharacteristically out of sync with his movements, look to drive Anrich Nortje and offered Van der Dussen one to his right. The celebrations, jubilant as they were, were to be expected.
Stokes has been South Africa’s bogeyman, and this score of two was the first time he’s not reached double figures. It did, as it happens, tick him over to exactly 1,000 runs against South Africa, at an average of 47.61.
The all-rounder was irate at himself as it was, and then found himself involved in an altercation with a fan who had run down the stands to greet him, just to the right of the tunnel that takes players from the side of the field up to the pavilion.
The host broadcaster, SuperSport, did not show the incident live but came back after an ad-break with the clip primed and ready, in which you could hear Stokes say: “Come say that to me outside the ground, you f*****g four-eyed c**t”. It is alleged the spectator in question – a South Africa fan – compared Stokes to Ed Sheeran, in a slur relating to his ginger hair. The player’s reaction, while perhaps understandable in the circumstances, is likely to see him face a reprimand from the ICC.
The incident was a reminder of what overseas sides face here. The battle is brought on many fronts, not just the opposition. The subtler lessons to be learned from Australia’s tour here in 2018 are to be as straight-faced as possible when those in the stands get on top of you. And always, always assume you are on camera. South Africa’s bowlers might not have had as much success as they’d have liked, but the production crews nabbed Jos Buttler in Cape Town and, now, looked to have Stokes, too.
That’s not to say Stokes is right for swearing as he walked off, and whether the broadcasters should have bleeped the slur as it was not shown live is academic. Contrition when he sees the match referee, likely in the next 24 horus, will go along way.
But, just quietly, there was a sense that, finally, this was the South Africa of old. Even as England started the day with the blow of Jofra Archer feeling is sore elbow in the warm-up and having to miss out a third Test in a row, with Chris Woakes coming in for Dom Bess instead, the visitors had it their own way.
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Root won a fourth consecutive toss, Faf du Plessis losing his seventh in a row. Sibley successfully reviewed a catch down the leg-side off Beuran Hendricks on 10 and then profited from a front-foot no ball called on the field when he sliced Vernon Philander to backward point for 12. It meant Crawley and Sibley made it through the first session for 100 runs against what was starting to look a rabble of a home attack.
But when Hendricks eventually got his man 20 balls after the tea break by the same mode of dismissal – on 44 – the Bullring came alive.
By then the locals had begun pouring in. The delay of play until 1:20pm had meant the ground was largely just England fans. But as the sun came out and took play away from the morning’s dark clouds, Proteas fans doubled and then trebled in number. The pitched quickened up, too, and the collapse of four wickets for 50 runs will see England return on day two with an eye on the weather but focussed on ensuring they do not let the histrionics of what may befall Stokes cloud their minds.
Even as they ticked over to 186 for four and their 500,000th run in Test cricket was commemorated on the big screen, it felt like a nuisance to acknowledge. The two in the middle at the time, Root and Ollie Pope, will resume tomorrow on 192 for four – on 25 and 22 respectively.
As dominant as England have been over the last two Tests, the final session of 24.2 overs and the way this ground throbbed when barely half-full shows what they will come up against on the weekend.