JAMES ANDERSON had bowled 32,359 balls in his Test career prior to winning his 150th cap yesterday, and surely few were more undistinguished than the 32,360th which brought him his 576th wicket and England a breakthrough with the opening ball of the series in South Africa.
It was the archetypal loosener from the Lancashire man, angled so far down the leg-side that batsman Dean Elgar should have had nothing to do with it as though it was the cricketing equivalent of a ne’er-do-well.
Whether Anderson’s immediate breakthrough will have a similar effect on this game remains to be seen.Chris Waters
Instead, he flicked at it and edged behind to wicketkeeper Jos Buttler before trudging off muttering away to himself. Well he might have done, for there are few more maddening ways for a batsman to get out.
All those net sessions beforehand, all that self-restraint over the Christmas period on the gastronomic front, and for what exactly? Not just a duck in this instance, or even a golden duck, but what is sometimes referred to as a platinum duck or a royal duck – terms for a batsman dismissed from the first ball of a match.
It was the first time that England had taken a wicket with the first ball of a Test since Yorkshireman Ryan Sidebottom – then a Nottinghamshire player – against West Indies at Chester-le-Street in 2007. Daren Ganga was the victim, caught at short-leg by Alastair Cook, a strike that set the tone for a seven-wicket win.
Whether Anderson’s immediate breakthrough will have a similar effect on this game remains to be seen. Sent into bat, South Africa scored 277-9 at SuperSport Park, a total that was better than England would have hoped for, particularly after they had reduced them to 111-5 shortly into the afternoon session.
But a sixth-wicket stand of 87 between Quinton de Kock and Dwaine Pretorius helped the hosts recover on a pitch expected to go up and down as the game progresses.
De Kock top-scored with 95, a typically attacking innings that changed the momentum, although both teams will feel they are well in the contest.
If it was Anderson, 37, who got the ball rolling on a glorious day, it was a man at the opposite end of the career spectrum who starred for the tourists.
Sam Curran, 21, returned a Test-best 4-57 from 19 overs, showcasing once more his golden arm credentials and ability to seemingly always contribute with bat and/or ball.
With England playing five seamers and with a couple of those, Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer, having been ill recently, Curran stepped up just when England needed him to – none more so than when he produced a fine delivery that moved away late to have the dangerous de Kock caught behind.
Among those who praised the young man’s efforts was Sidebottom, who wrote on Twitter: “He was a pleasure to coach @surreycricket has lots of skill and the variety for @englandcricket is crucial #lefty”.
On a day when England wore black armbands in memory of former captain Bob Willis, Root’s men made a steady start to a series that immediately lived up to its billing as being tough to call. They will have to bat well in their own first innings, with Yorkshire’s Jonny Bairstow back in the side in place of the ill Ollie Pope and the overlooked Zak Crawley, with the series likely to come down to which batting unit copes best with the other’s pace attack.
There was nothing to suggest that South Africa hold too many aces on the batting front.
De Kock played well, but Aiden Markram chipped loosely to mid-wicket and the rest of the top-order gave slip catching practice, with England’s fielders not found wanting in that regard.
Root held three chances, including debutants Rassie van der Dussen and Pretorius off Curran, plus opposite number Faf du Plessis off the persevering Broad. Archer was not at his best in terms of pace/accuracy, although perhaps his recent illness had something to do with that.
There are times when Archer’s body language seems curiously downbeat, a bit like that of a man who has been simultaneously dumped by his partner, lost a winning lottery ticket and been told by his newsagent: “I’m really sorry, sir, but I’m afraid we’ve just sold our last copy of The Yorkshire Post.”
When de Kock and Pretorius were in the throes of their sixth-wicket partnership, England’s body language collectively betrayed concern.
This was manifest when Curran rapped Pretorius on the pad and Root sent the matter upstairs, television confirming the initial impression to the naked eye that, apart from the fact that the ball pitched outside leg stump and was drifting further down the leg-side, it was absolutely plumb.
England stuck to their task on a fluctuating day, though, one that left us none the wiser as to how the series may pan out.
That is the beauty of Test cricket, with its endless twists and turns and ability to surprise.