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England collapse as Faf du Plessis pulls strings for South Africa … – The Guardian

This Test is racing along like a runaway train and Faf du Plessis is in the driving seat. The South Africa captain, a tough, phlegmatic man, had to endure his team losing their last four wickets inside the first 40 minutes and then witness England’s batsmen jauntily head for lunch on 85 for two, despite the loss of both openers with only three runs on the board. Yet by the end of another extraordinary, entertaining day of Test cricket Du Plessis’ side led by 205 runs with nine wickets in hand. After two days South Africa hold all the best cards.

Du Plessis handled his attack deftly during England’s remarkably brief innings. At one point Joe Root was batting so sublimely that South Africa’s total of 335 seemed inadequate but once the England captain departed after striking a majestic 78 from 76 balls the innings imploded with Du Plessis pulling the metaphorical strings as cleverly as Messrs Fluck and Law a couple of decades ago.

The last six wickets fell not to the obvious candidates, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, but to Chris Morris and the left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj. Du Plessis had the vision to let these unlikely bowlers hold sway. On this grim afternoon for England he was, perhaps, the spitting image of Graeme Smith, the great tormentor of England captains on recent South African tours.

In all, 15 wickets fell on a day when there was a blanket of light grey cloud hovering over Nottingham. This must have assisted the pace bowlers, as did the occasional uneven bounce. Yet it remains something of a mystery that so many batsmen came and went so swiftly, most of them English.

England’s innings lasted 51.5 overs, which reflects the fact that there was not much grafting going on in testing conditions. In the 21st century the notion of grafting at the crease is no more popular than a pair of bell-bottoms. Admittedly, though, there were some serious deliveries being propelled by the South Africa bowlers at the start of England reply.

Alastair Cook was soon caught via the pad and the inside edge of his bat after a review. Philander is the type of bowler many modern openers fear and he has now dismissed Cook five times in Test cricket while conceding only 52 runs against him. He bowls a fuller length than most Test pacemen and he hits the seam more often as well as eking out some swing. Like many opening batsmen Cook is happier when his opponent, while quicker through the air than Philander, is bowling just short of a length.

Keaton Jennings succumbed to a beauty from Morkel without scoring and batting looked a trial – except when Root was on strike. Amid the chaos Root timed the ball from the start, playing a different game from the others; he found the boundary at will and by lunch had reached his 50 off 40 balls. Gary Ballance, though nowhere near as fluent, was also positive in outlook and a willing ally for his old flat-mate. But after lunch Ballance was slow to retune. A sloppy forward defensive against Philander found his inside edge and the ball hit the stumps.

Root continued in regal fashion but would end up with only 78, an exasperating score for a batsman of his quality. There have been great and memorable 70s by England captains before. The 70 (from 75 balls) by Ted Dexter at Lord’s against West Indies in 1963 still resonates among the older generation. Root’s innings may not linger in the memory so long partly because there were no Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith and Gary Sobers pounding in. But there was surely a similar majesty as well as an obvious disparity between the captain’s batting and the rest of the team. He departed when driving at a wide ball from Morkel, chastising himself with a thwack on the thigh as he went. He must have felt so invincible that every shot was on.

There were a few more pleasing strokes from Jonny Bairstow and not much more. Ben Stokes was deprived of the strike for five overs and was all tension when his innings resumed against Maharaj’s left-arm spin. He was caught off the inside edge once it was established that the ball had not touched the grille of Quinton de Kock’s helmet before landing in his gloves. An off-balance Moeen Ali swished to cover; Stuart Broad missed his first ball; Liam Dawson top-edged and Mark Wood, more Panesar than Pelé at No10, fended and it was all over. A mystified Jimmy Anderson had to put his bowling boots on again.

In the morning Anderson gave credence to the notion that he is a grey-sky bully in a remarkable 35 minutes. On Friday he had toiled manfully; here he snaffled four wickets in 16 balls at a cost of four runs, thereby polishing off the South African innings in the time it takes to complete the Observer crossword (the first clue thereof).

Somehow England managed to change the ball before the start of play and it seems that the replacement was rather more mischievous than the one used in the sunshine of the previous evening. Anderson’s fifth ball deviated away from the River Trent and the ball spooned from Philander’s bat to Dawson at extra-cover. In his next over Maharaj was neatly taken at second slip by Root; then Morris was caught by Anderson in his follow-through from another leading edge; finally Morkel was caught behind.

So Anderson finished with another five-wicket haul at his beloved Trent Bridge, where he bowls far more effectively for England than at his home of Old Trafford. He now has 59 wickets here in nine matches and this was his seventh five-wicket haul in Nottingham out of the 22 he has acquired in Test cricket.

At 11.35am he was beaming. By 5pm when he was back on the field again the smile was not quite so broad. He managed to dismiss Heino Kuhn but that was England’s only success in the final session of another mesmerising, topsy-turvy day – and a very chastening one for the home side.

England collapse as Faf du Plessis pulls strings for South Africa … – The Guardian

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