Andrew Strauss, the captain of England, won the toss for the second time in the series yesterday and for the second time, with all to play for at Newlands, invited South Africa to bat.
Last time, it almost went horribly wrong when England were left hanging on with one wicket left in Centurion. But the point, as Strauss might stress, is that they hung on. By the early close yesterday, South Africa were 279 for six, the interpretation of which is that they have nosed in front.
South Africa, who were again propped up by dependable Jacques Kallis, would be quietly satisfied after a start that threatened disaster. Kallis, in characteristic thou-shalt-not-pass fashion, ensured it did not.
Towards the end of the day, after four hours and with his 11th four off his 173rd ball, he reached his 50th first class hundred, his 33rd in Tests, his seventh against England, his sixth at Newlands, his second of the series. It was much like most of those that had preceded it, exuding solidity, neither rushing nor strolling. He is the sort of batsman that clocks can be set by.
Kallis and Mark Boucher shared an important partnership of 89 for the sixth wicket and he and Dale Steyn an unbroken 63 for the seventh, both of them sufficient to give Strauss pause for thought about old adages.
England would hardly be in despair, thinking that if they can contain their opponents to a total south of 400, they have the scope to bat them to distraction on a pitch likely to become flatter over the next day or two.
The tourists, however, would acknowledge that they could and should have done better. Their three seamers, especially Jimmy Anderson, bowled their socks off.
At times in his first spell in the morning and his second in the afternoon, Anderson made the ball talk, bowling mostly but not exclusively in-swing and making the ball reverse. Anderson can be maddeningly inconsistent for the leader of the attack but this was one of those days on which he deserved better.
Stuart Broad bowled astutely, Graham Onions had his moment early on. There were two wickets in two balls for Graeme Swann but also a sense that South Africa were coming to terms with him. For once he was not allowed to dictate terms.
It was cloudy but warm in the morning and a sprinkling of rain delayed the start by an hour. Table Mountain was shrouded in mist and had disappeared from view. The combination was irresistible to Strauss.
The first over was all he could have craved. Anderson had been swinging the ball round corners during practice and he did so again now. His fourth ball lifted and curved away from Ashwell Prince, the last sort of ball that a struggling opening batsman needs and the one that he inevitably receives.
Perhaps the most crucial moment occurred in the next over. Onions was the bowler, Graeme Smith the batsman. The ball went across Smith and he pushed hard at it, only to edge to Swann at second slip. The ball went at waist height, the direction of choice for a slip fielder, but Swann failed to grasp it and although he desperately tried have a second stab the ball eluded him.
Had Kallis had to come in then, with his captain gone, things might have been different. As it is, he was not long delayed because Hashim Alma, always an lbw candidate who had already survived a review for a catch behind, was undone by a beauty from Onions which he played across.
To offer a player of Smith’s high calibre an escape of the sort that Swann had permitted is tantamount to an invitation to score a hundred. In the event he declined it, dismissed by the first ball he received after lunch, another humdinger from Anderson which swung late, lifted, found the edge and produced from Matt Prior a lovely catch diving in front of first slip. Strauss looked the smartest man in cricket at this point and when he introduced Swann into the attack his stock increased further.
For once, the new star of English cricket did not strike in his first over but he did in his eighth — twice.
AB de Villiers drove rather sloppily towards short mid-wicket. Next ball J-P Duminy, who a year ago could do no wrong and now can do no right, was done every which way by a turning ball that he feathered behind.
It is for positions like 127 for five that Boucher was made. He scampered and harried while Kallis merely plugged away at his own pace. England needed a wicket when Broad, in an intelligent spell, got one to nip back. Boucher reviewed it to no avail.
Steyn, promoted to eight, fully justified it and when the sides went off for bad light soon after the second new ball was taken, England had the bare minimum of what their decision at the toss demanded.
l THE freezing weather prevented the Dublin-based players travelling to Ireland’s net session at Bready at the weekend and has resulted in a delay to the naming of the squad for this month’s games in Sri Lanka and the UAE.
Three of the four selectors met yesterday morning to finalise a squad for the Intercontinental Cup match against Afghanistan in Dambulla and another squad for the World Twent20 qualifiers immediately afterwards. Leinster selector Brian McNeice was also stranded in Dublin.
The plan was to tell the players at the end of the training session but with only eight players in attendance phone calls now have to be made.
National Coach Phil Simmons said: “A few details have still to be sorted out and I will be in a position to announce the squad in midweek.”