|Fourth Test, New Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg (day one of five):|
|England 192-4: Crawley 66, Sibley 44|
|South Africa: Yet to bat|
England posted their first century opening stand in more than three years only to lose four wickets for 50 runs on a fluctuating first day of the fourth Test against South Africa in Johannesburg.
Zak Crawley’s maiden half-century, allied to 44 from Dom Sibley, took England to 107-0 just after tea on a day when the start was delayed by more than three hours because of rain at The Wanderers.
In the face of some improved South Africa bowling, England wasted their platform as the top order found ways of getting themselves out.
Sibley gave Beuran Hendricks his first Test wicket, Crawley fell for 66, a skittish Joe Denly was dismissed for 27 and Ben Stokes, who made only two, appeared to exchange angry words with someone off the field as he departed.
It was left to captain Joe Root and Ollie Pope to steady the tourists, taking them to 192-4 when bad light ended play.
Despite the collapse, England still have the opportunity to build a sizable first-innings total, which would then give them the opportunity to pressure South Africa on a pitch which seems set to crack.
Conversely, the Proteas’ recovery from a sloppy first session means they can still bowl out the tourists for a relatively cheap score.
England lead the series the 2-1 and will secure only a second overseas series win in four years if they avoid defeat.
Action all the way in day of two halves
Even though rain wiped out the entire first session, the amount of action before the toss took place gave a preview of the lively cricket that would follow.
With the pitch appearing, and later proving, to offer pace and bounce, both sides omitted their specialist spinners in favour of five fast bowlers each.
For England, that meant checks on the fitness of Mark Wood and Jofra Archer. The latter is not yet fully recovered from an elbow injury, meaning a return for Chris Woakes.
Given the surface, the damp and the cloud, choosing to bat first carried an element of risk for Root, who banked on his batsmen coming through the early challenge, allowing his attack to take advantage of any deterioration later in the match.
That they did so was down to a combination of the endeavour shown by Crawley and Sibley, allied to the lacklustre performance by the South Africans.
With England seemingly in a prime position, the Proteas finally provided a sustained threat with the ball, and the quadruple strike left the match nicely poised.
Crawley the latest youngster to shine
This series has been one where England’s youngsters have come to the fore – with maiden centuries for Sibley and Pope, and a first five-wicket haul for off-spinner Dom Bess.
Kent opener Crawley, aged 21, only has a first-class average of 30, but played a series of glorious strokes to demonstrate the potential on which he has been picked.
As South Africa’s bowlers struggled with length, the tall Crawley took every opportunity to drive, peppering the straight and cover boundaries with a number of handsome strokes.
With Sibley benefiting from overturning being given out caught down the leg side on 10, then being caught off a no-ball on 12, they shared England’s first century opening stand since Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings against India in Chennai in 2016.
Not only that, but it was England’s first three-figure opening partnership when batting first in a Test since 2009.
There have been times in the series when Crawley has been troubled by the short ball, and just before tea he took a nasty blow to the helmet from Anrich Nortje.
After the break, he tried to withdraw his bat from a lifting a delivery from Vernon Philander, and was furious when he gave an edge to first slip.
Proteas finally fire
In conditions that should have helped their bowlers, South Africa were initially toothless, meandering through the first session with neither control nor a sustained threat.
As poor as they were before tea, they were excellent afterwards, using the conditions with hostility to pressurise England into mistakes.
Sibley gloved left-armer Hendricks, in the side for the suspended Kagiso Rabada, down the leg side, with Crawley falling 15 balls later.
Denly was strangely out of sorts in his time at the crease. He was dropped twice and inside-edged past his own stumps twice before he was caught at first slip off Dane Paterson, who was South Africa’s standout bowler.
The pace of Nortje drew Stokes into an unnecessary drive, a dismissal which may have further ramifications for the verbal confrontation Stokes appeared to have on his way back to the dressing room.
Root and Pope were left to battle through a testing spell in the gathering gloom, and it was England who were happier to see the light intervene with just over half an hour of play remaining.
‘I was eyeing three figures’
England opener Zak Crawley, speaking to Sky Sports: “I was eyeing three figures. It is hard not to. I was pretty annoyed but would have taken 66 at the start. When your are out there you try hard to keep it out of your head, but it is a big thing scoring a hundred for England.”
BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew: “It has been a really interesting day. South Africa came back into it and that is why Faf du Plessis wanted to stay out there.”
Former England pace bowler Graham Onions on the Cricket Social: “It has been a mixed day for England. They will be walking off thinking ‘we have done OK’. Equally I think South Africa will think they have a chance. With Chris Woakes coming in at nine for England they have plenty runs to come yet.”