Bowlers may leave South Africa wondering, as hosts seek to make something from nothing

Kagiso Rabada roars in celebration after bowling Joe Root © Marco Longari/AFP/Getty

If you want to guess how much goes on in Port Elizabeth, use today’s play as your most revealing clue. With 224 runs scored and four wickets taken, you will conclude that not that much happened and you would not be wrong, on the field and off it.

This is the sleepiest of the four venues for this series, a place where life seems simpler. There’s one go-to beachfront strip, one hipster neighbourhood and one team in the premier soccer league. Likewise, there’s one thing to expect from the St George’s Park pitch: it will be slow.

That means fielding teams need to think innovatively, especially if they have to make first use of the surface in trying conditions, as was the case today. It was the hottest day of the week, with barely a breath of wind, even though the bowling-friendly easterly was forecast, and South Africa decided an extra bowler was necessary.

Dane Paterson, who bowls in the high-130s, became the 109th player to be capped post-readmission and replaced Dwaine Pretorius, whose speeds are in the low-130s. On the face of it, it does not seem like a bad idea. Extra pace, albeit at the expense of an allrounder, could have its uses but not when used the way South Africa did today.

Paterson shared the new ball with Vernon Philander, despite the presence of out and out quicks, Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje. South Africa’s bowling coach Charl Langeveldt explained the decision as part of a strategy to ensure England’s openers were not allowed to leave too much. “On this surface, we needed to make the new ball count and the captain and management decided we would go with Paterson because he bowls a fuller length and makes the batsmen play more,” Langeveldt said.

England left 10 balls in the first eight overs, so perhaps South Africa achieved their aim but Zak Crawley admitted the decision not to use Rabada upfront surprised him. That statement should tell South Africa everything they need to know about the dangers of taking the pressure off the opposition in the opening exchanges, which should be as attritional as possible.

It also puts the spotlight on Philander and won’t be amiss to go as far as to question his inclusion in the XI, considering his contribution, or lack thereof, and the conditions. Philander delivered an opening spell of four overs, in which Quinton de Kock was standing up to him, a mid-morning session of four overs and then did not bowl again until the second new ball. He was the least-used seam bowler on the day, delivering only 11 overs, but Langeveldt said team management were not expecting any more from the soon-to-be-retired seamer. “The surface doesn’t suit Vern that much. It’s quite slow so off the wicket batsmen can adjust. Vern is great with the new ball, but we decided to use him sparingly,” Langeveldt said.

Would South Africa have got more from Pretorius, in terms of overs or impact? It’s tough to say, especially because Faf du Plessis has previously explained the expectation on Pretorius is to contribute 10-15 overs a day and keep it tight and Langeveldt called Philander and Pretorius “basically two of the same”. So South Africa chose one of them, and may spend the rest of this Test wondering if it was the wrong one.

The outcome of all that is that Keshav Maharaj had to put in overtime and bowled 30 overs in succession, from before lunch until before the second new ball, and two overs to close the day. Not only did Maharaj keep England quiet and allow the quicks to rotate from the Park Dive End, but he also created several chances and made the breakthrough that changed the meandering mood of the day into something more meaty. De Kock was the man who spotted that a wicket was on offer when Maharaj struck Joe Denly on the pad, just before he inside-edged the ball. De Kock was the lone voice to appeal and asked for a review; replays showed that the ball was hitting middle and off-stump.

Keshav Maharaj impressed in the holding role © Stu Forster/Getty Images

That brought Ben Stokes to the crease, to resume a cat-and-mouse game with Maharaj that was evenly poised after the first two Tests. Maharaj dismissed Stokes in the second innings at SuperSport Park and Stokes took Maharaj on at Newlands. Here, they danced again.

Maharaj hit Stokes on the back pad and du Plessis reviewed but Stokes survived on umpire’s call on the impact just outside the line and responded with a sweep through midwicket for four. In the next over Maharaj again had a review off Stokes, for a delivery that spun past the inside edge and off the pad, for what looked like a slip catch. Replays showed that there was no bat and no chance of an lbw with impact outside the line. Stokes responded with a cut for four. In the next over, Maharaj kept Stokes on the back foot and set him up for the nudge to short-leg, but the chance fell just short of Pieter Malan. Still, it showed that some parts of the South African attack are working to a plan, specifically the leg-side plan that dismissed Dom Sibley.

Du Plessis set 6-3 fields to Sibley, who showed South Africa his willingness to play the ball in the air on the onside. He did it several times in the morning session and one too many in the afternoon, when he steered a back-of-a-length Rabada ball to Dean Elgar at backward square leg.

Rabada enjoyed that wicket but not as much as his next one, the England captain Joe Root. Post-tea, after Maharaj’s crucial intervention with the wicket of Denly, Rabada beat Root for pace and pegged back his off-stump. He sent Root off by screaming at the stumps, a celebration reminiscent of his performance here two years ago against Australia. Then, Rabada went full tilt against Steve Smith, with a shoulder charge that almost earned him a suspension. Then was also the last time Rabada took a five-for and the last time he seemed to get properly riled up.

Since then, Rabada has looked everything from lethargic to overworked and though he remains South Africa’s most feared bowler, he has not always enjoyed the returns that come with his reputation. Even though Rabada was South Africa’s leading wicket-taker in 2019, it was his Rabada’s leanest full calendar year as a Test cricketer and led to questions about whether he was bowled too much, too soon, and was maybe becoming a little jaded by it all. His reaction to dismissing Root said otherwise. “KG is always looking for a scrap. It gets him fired up,” Langeveldt said.

On a pitch like this, that’s what South Africa need: an inspired spell from someone who can make something out of nothing. That doesn’t often happen in Port Elizabeth, but the next four days could be different.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent

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