They say it is better to be a lucky captain than a good one. Joe Root may well turn out to be the latter – time will tell – but on his first day in the England job he certainly suggested that he has the cricketing gods on his side. Root enjoyed let-offs from South Africa on five and 149, and saw his vice-captain Ben Stokes bowled off a no-ball, as he marked his coronation as England captain by scoring an unbeaten 184.
The contribution allowed the hosts to close the first day on 357 for five, which was an impressive turnaround given that they went to lunch on 82 for four. With Root scoring his runs at a strike rate of more than 80, relatively reserved fifties from Stokes (56) and Moeen Ali (61 not out) were all the support he needed to put England in control after the first day of the opening Test.
To some extent, Root needed the innings – and not just to set the tone for his tenure. After Root had won the toss and elected to bat first, South Africa found the perfect amount of movement to get amongst England’s fragile top order. Vernon Philander was especially deadly, taking 2 for 17 in his first spell as he had Alastair Cook caught behind and Keaton Jennings trapped lbw – although replays showed that the latter delivery pitched outside leg stump.
With Morne Morkel exposing Gary Ballance’s old flaws with the full delivery that caught him deep in his crease, and Philander returning to trap Jonny Bairstow lbw before the lunch break, Root’s decision came into question. But England’s middle order is made of sterner stuff, and Root and Stokes dug in after lunch before opening up as the pitch eased and the hot day took its toll on South Africa’s bowlers.
It could have been very different if South Africa had taken their chances. England were on 31 for two when Root top-edged a pull shot down to fine leg, where the substitute fielder Aiden Markram was too far off the boundary rope. The ball sailed over his head and landed inside the rope as he back-peddled. Six overs later, with England 59 for three, Root flashed hard at a wide delivery from Rabada and saw his edge fly over JP Duminy’s head at a catchable height. Duminy, at gully, could not get his hands up in time.
Nevertheless, the first session belonged firmly to the visitors, which should have settled any sense of unease from their build-up – or nerves on the occasion. Philander’s skill throughout the day was superb. He moved the ball both ways off the seam in the morning, with his setup of Bairstow the highlight as he deviated the ball away from the right-hander, then got the following delivery to move in up the slope and catch the batsman in no-man’s land.
Yet after lunch the going became rather tougher. Stokes measured himself well, finding time to hit Keshav Maharaj back over his head for six but also keeping himself in check when Morkel returned for a threatening spell. His luck came on 44 when Morkel overstepped before bowling the left-hander. Stokes duly went to fifty in the over before tea as England took their tally for the session to 100 runs without losing a wicket.
South Africa’s tactics to Stokes suggested that they fancied the short ball could bring his downfall, and so it proved in the third over after the break. Rabada sent down the bouncer and a faint tickle was pouched by Quinton de Kock. Rabada’s outburst of emotion showed the importance of the dismissal, as the 114-run stand was brought to a close.
Crucially, South Africa were unable to turn one wicket into two and get into the tail. Instead Root struck three fours in four deliveries as he romped to 99, then got the crowd on its feet when he lapped Maharaj away fine on the leg side to become the fourth straight England captain to make a hundred in his first Test as captain.
While Ali was happy to bide his time – even against South Africa’s part-timers, Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma – Root needed just 43 deliveries to move from 100 to 150. He also needed some luck, as he came down the track to Maharaj on 149 only to see the ball turn past him. De Kock tapped the bails off and Root began to depart, only for the right-hander to survive when it was discovered Maharaj had overstepped.
Having dominated the opening session, South Africa ended it with their heads bowed. They had bowled 13 no-balls and failed to get through 90 overs. Maharaj’s non-dismissal of Root validated England’s decision to pick two spinners, especially with the hot, dry weather set to suck the moisture out of the pitch in the coming days. By the close, Root and Ali had added 167 for the sixth wicket at more than five runs per over. Without early wickets on the second day, it could prove to be a long Test match for Dean Elgar’s men.
Brief Scores: England 357/5 (Joe Root 184*, Moeen Ali 61*; Vernon Philander 3-46) vs South Africa