Ed Hawkins analyses the state of affairs at Trent Bridge on day one and suggests the tourists are close to being in the box seat...
"Du Plessis then must be a student of the game. He looks at the bigger picture rather than the marks or flick of the brush which the excitable and naïve overindulge in"
South Africa have been called many things this summer. Chokers (naturally), ill-prepared (standard for a touring team in this country) and, prior to the first Test, unprofessional for their lazy drills the day before.
Gutsy has not been one of them. So to have a day off from the Saffer bashing after a listless ODI series against England, an abject performance in the Champions Trophy and an insipid display at Headquarters, they are worthy of praise for having the courage to bat first on day one of the second Test at Trent Bridge.
Or rather Faf Du Plessis, the returning captain, does. Having won the toss under grey Nottingham skies and with the weight of a one-game deficit weighing heavily on his mind, Du Plessis puffed out his chest and made the call. Time will tell if it was the right one but statistically, because of the toss bias, it was the right one.
Du Plessis then must be a student of the game. He looks at the bigger picture rather than the marks or flick of the brush which the excitable and naïve overindulge in. He could have been forgiven for perusing the scorecard of the last Test to be played at Trent Bridge, recoiled in horror at Australia being razed for just 60 and decided to protect his batsmen.
But that would have been the easy thing to do. If South Africa are going to get back into this series they are, at some stage, going to have to come to terms with seam and swing. They don't have time to waste. And, at least they had already done better than Australia soon after lunch on day one.
The chutzpah continued from Du Plessis, sending in the rampart-raiding Quinton De Kock ahead of him at number four. It was a terrifically bold move and one which put England on the back somewhat as he rocketed along with Hashim Amla more circumspect.
There are some good signs from history that South Africa can make a game of this one. Sri Lanka posted 231 in the first-innings in 2006 but still got up to win it in the last innings, setting 325 and bowling out England for 190. Just 364 was enough for England to win by an innings against New Zealand two years later. These totals were not Everest by any stretch.
There are more. Against Pakistan in 2010 354 was enough for England to win. The next summer 211 did the job for the hosts against India, although they did pile up 544 on their second visit after conceding a first-innings lead. In 2013 England beat Australia with only 215 chalked up.
Of course, there is always a fly on the pallet. West Indies looked impregnable with 370 in 2012 but they were still beaten by England. And it has to be said, they really do love playing on this ground.
Yet they are well aware that batting last on this ground can be tricky in the extreme. Since 2000, the highest chase is England's 284 against New Zealand in 2004. It was, even then, a major outlier. At the time, no team had ever chased more than 247 to win. No side has done it since either.
In short then, so long as South Africa's eyes do not get too big for their stomach, they are bang in the game. It doesn't matter if they don't bust more than, say, 360 - the sort of first-innings total which would be considered about par. That would, or should, make them strong favourites on this ground.
They are, of course, without Kagiso Rabada. And that is a terrible blow. Ordinarily we are sticklers for the rules but it seems a ludicrous sanction that he was banned for swearing after it was picked up by stump microphones. Test cricket desperately needs its best players playing.
Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander should, however, be more than capable of bending the ball here. Rabada's replacement, meanwhile, Duanne Olivier, has a first-class average of just more than 20. So he can't be too shabby. South Africa might only need two of them to bowl well.
Fourth-innings totals in results at Trent Bridge since 2000: 253/296/111-1/158/80/232/73-3/190/129-7/284-6/131/158-3/
Ed Hawkins P-L
Based only on available prices. Does not include back-to-lay in-running match advice or commission rate. Figures 2013-2016 on 1pt level stakes. New points system (0.5pt-5) introduced for 2017.
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