Such was the skill with which South Africa bowled on day two of the first Test that one had visions of the fit and well volunteering to take medical supplies to them in the hope of contracting the virus themselves.
After all, which batsman wouldn’t, when confronted with the hostility of Kagiso Rabada and the accuracy of Vernon Philander, have turned up a blocked nose at the prospect of a sneaky spell on the sidelines – even if it did involve ingesting mountains of Lemsip (other cold and flu remedies are available, by the way).
But whereas Ollie Pope, Chris Woakes, Jack Leach and Mark Wood might be said to be the lucky ones, with Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer having only recently recovered from the same bug that has also laid low two members of England’s backroom staff (ergo, about two per cent of it), the healthy remainder were left with the considerable challenge of repelling some magnificent bowling at times.
On occasions, they did so well enough on a day when England were shot out for 181 at Centurion in reply to South Africa’s first innings 284, the hosts closing on 72-4, a lead of 175.
There was precious little that openers Rory Burns and Dominic Sibley could have done about the deliveries from Philander and Rabada respectively that climbed and took the edge through to wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock, who followed his potentially crucial 95 in the first innings with six catches.
Joe Denly, Ben Stokes and Joe Root battled hard for periods, Denly top-scoring with 50 from 111 balls in 15 minutes under three hours, and although a maiden Test century still eludes him, he showed great character against two opening bowlers who, lest we forget, are in the top-ten of the International Cricket Council rankings.
For the most part, though, England’s batting was brittle, the loss of their last seven wickets for 39 runs speaking for itself.
Although the pitch grew increasingly difficult, the likes of Root and Stokes gave away their wickets, and England’s strategy in choosing to bowl first on a pitch expected to go increasingly up and down was predicated on the fact that the statistics apparently show that the best time to bat at SuperSport Park is on day two.
Philander (4-16) and Rabada (3-68) were excellent and well supported by Anrich Nortje and Dwaine Pretorius.
There were a few overs of spin from Yorkshire’s Keshav Maharaj, who was accurate despite being lofted for successive leg-side sixes by Stokes.
It would have been even better for South Africa had Denly not been dropped on nought by debutant Rassie van der Dussen at first slip off Rabada as de Kock dived across him.
The downside of stump microphones was highlighted by Rabada’s piqued reaction – it rhymed with “for duck’s sake, man” – which was perhaps not best broadcast to a television audience in England before 9am. However, blame the authorities – would you want microphones on your shop floor? – on a day of wonderfully engaging, competitive Test cricket.
Low-scoring games are invariably the best, and while England’s collapse was another example of Groundhog Day, it nonetheless made for riveting viewing.When South Africa lost a wicket to the fifth ball of their second innings, Aiden Markram trapped lbw by James Anderson, the theme of batsmen coming and going continued apace.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Markram is that his surname reads exactly the same if you spell it backwards; indeed, what a pity that his first name is not “Bob” or “Pip” or “Otto”, and then you would have the ultimate cricketing palindrome.
Perhaps the second most remarkable thing about Markram is that he chose to review his lbw decision, with replays showing the ball to be crashing into leg stump about halfway up.
It was such a bad review, in fact, that it made those attending the latest Cats film seem brilliant by comparison.
Jofra Archer nipped in with a couple of wickets, including a giveaway from Faf du Plessis hooking to deep-backward square, and England just about stayed in the game heading into the third day.
However, South Africa’s lead may already be sufficient, although there is hope at least of a thrilling finish.