With rain dismantling not just cricket but all English life of late, the fear of sodden collapse was never far away; no one trusts the skies anymore. While up in the press box, the view through the tinted windows made the dark day seem bleaker, while the brutal air conditioning evoked a feeling of 40 middle-aged men sitting in a fridge.
A cheeky shower delayed the start by 15 minutes. England’s bowlers kept warm on the perimeter, prompting the sages in the fridge to deliver a win-the-toss-and-bowl prognosis. (Which wasn’t all; the creeping collapse of traditional media – symbolised by blank-eyed pups tweeting their bleeding hearts out in some Ukrainian motel at two in the morning – was also covered off in detail by 10:30.)
The covers crawled off to hedge their bets on the outfield. The two lefties tossed for it; Strauss wins, Strauss bats.
Morne Morkel takes the first over from the Fridge End. Strauss to face. The first is bang on, squaring him up to take the splice. The second is wide and leggy; the third pointlessly offish. “Like Courtney Walsh without the accuracy” comes a call from deep inside the fridge. The fourth is fast and full. First-night nerves from umpire Steve Davis sees the finger stay limp, but DRS is an emotionless toy and Strauss is gone.
In years gone by, in big matches on edgy first mornings, the loss of your captain in the first over, disclosing the 0-1 nightmare, would more often than not prompt a sluggish collapse: 50-3, 70-4, tail-end resistance, defeat.
These days, however, Jonathan Trott moseys out, quietly hunting down legendary status. Invariably he joins Alastair Cook. They will always have Brisbane, and everyone knows it. We have to go back a long time to find a more formidable English pair so suited to each other’s whims. They’ve now shared seven century stands in 27 innings and average 73.60 in partnership. Technically tight, mentally unimpeachable, in love with batting and probably each other. Grindermen.
Trott pushes his first ball from Morkel down the ground for four. The nightmare just falls away. An over later, out comes the bravura offside dab for a single. It’s one of the great shots in the game, the Trott offside dab: shuffling across to smother the movement, getting his pad outside the line, he climbs all over it, plunging his bat into the pitch on impact like a farmhand breaking the soil while the ball, by way of apology for having entered his area, tiptoes out into space as Trott waddles up the other end to sit on his bat and think about nothing.
And what of South Africa? So vaunted in the build-up, they’ve been faced here with a stodgy pitch and not much luck. Morkel was the pick, looking dangerous, wildly Harmisonesque, and a little too nice; Vernon Philander looked tidy in a Martin Bicknell-type way, but without the pace to hurry Trott’s defences or sniff Cook’s edge.
Like many an English-style seamer down the years – including those assembled here in the fridge – Philander plods down that peculiarly narrow channel that separates the innocuous from the incisive; perhaps his time will come at Headingley.
Meanwhile, Dale Steyn’s conventional swing into the pads of Cook was respectfully neutered without anything like the predicted fuss.
He would return to show his class with the old ball in the evening session, but overall, all seemed down on pace and themselves.
When towards the end of that floodlit morning session Cook quietly punched a back-foot drive between Philander and mid off, the jagged edges had been completely smoothed out. The lingering fear that Big Vern had been building up his pace evaporated in that one shot. A big first innings score now felt inevitable.
Die cast, the afternoon session just came and went. Trott drove Steyn on the up; Cook pulled Imran Tahir’s loose ones; Kallis bowled deliberately wide; Steyn got a couple to go the other way, while Cook disobliged by missing them and wracking up his 20th Test ton – two behind the English record. Three an over, no wickets. Gloriously boring. Still, at least they got the air con sorted. And the sun came out!
So even on a day when England’s most reliable cricketers sucked the life from their nearest challengers, there was still room for a few surprises.
Whether you’re an armchair enthusiast or an avid player, All Out Cricket magazine is a great read for cricket fans of all ages and tastes.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge