For the England fans at St George’s Park, Friday was a fun day.
They saw their team score two centuries, accompanied by two delightful lower order cameos, and even two declarations. Late in the day, they picked up two vital wickets, and Mark Wood – swisher of one of those cameos – bowling frightening pace in fading light. Not bad for a day that started late and ended early due to rain.
One of those centuries was scored by a 22-year-old, Ollie Pope, and the wickets fell to another, Dom Bess. There is an exciting feel to this emerging England outfit. The lesser spotted Wood is 30 now, but has the enthusiasm of a younger man. Few players get fans and team-mates quite so excited.
Overnight, England’s advantage was marginal, but by lunch it was undeniable. It was a dismal morning for South Africa: it was confirmed that Kagiso Rabada will miss the last Test due to his latest send-off (a draconian punishment, but the result of utter naivety on the bowler’s part), and England racked up 111 in a wicketless morning session.
Shortly before the break, Ben Stokes brought up the first of England’s hundreds, his ninth in Test cricket. In the process he passed 4,000 runs, becoming just the second Englishman to pair that with more than 100 Test wickets. The other is Ian Botham, naturally.
Stokes took the lead as his junior partner Pope cruised along in search of his maiden ton. Keshav Maharaj was treated with disdain, and both batsmen feasted on the South African bowlers’ refusal to bowl to Faf du Plessis’s (curious) fields. South Africa were ragged, England ruthless.
Stokes’s was a terrific century that ended shortly after lunch when he picked out backward point, gifting Dane Paterson a maiden Test wicket. But Pope’s was a far more important innings, for the player if not the team.
It was mighty hard-earned, and showed all aspects of Pope’s game. On the first evening, he launched a crisp counterattack. On the second day, he nudged, nurdled and feasted on the bad balls. Once he had reached three figures, he played some remarkable shots over the wicketkeeper off Rabada. There were scares, particularly when given out lbw on 76, only for his review to see it overturned. Pope admitted that he thought the review – which Stokes instructed him to take – was “clutching at straws”.
The sense is that, in Pope, England have a special talent. This 135 not out makes him the youngest England Test centurion since Alastair Cook in 2006, and his Test average now sits close to 52 and his first-class average is over 60. From his 75 in New Zealand, his mature marshalling of the tail in Cape Town, to this, he is settling fast at this level. In a batting order that is beginning to make sense – for the first time in some time – he is a key figure at No6, where he should stay for now.
By the time Pope reached his century, he was in the company of Sam Curran, with whom he has played for so long at Surrey. Curran played the first of England’s punchy cameos, containing seven boundaries that took the pressure off his mate as he moved towards his century.
In a 73-run blitz after tea, Wood’s innings was even more impressive. He hit Maharaj for five sixes, and looked like he could even beat Botham’s record for England’s fastest half-century (28 balls). As Curran and Wood had their fun, it was worth wondering what Jos Buttler, who had tamely pushed back to the bowler for one, was thinking.
England eventually declared when Wood was caught attempting a fifth six, but they had tried 32 runs earlier. Then, Rabada had Wood caught at mid-on, only for it to be ruled out for a no-ball. Rabada’s day could barely have gone worse.
South Africa’s innings began with assurance, then Bess and Wood got involved. Pieter Malan tapped a caught and bowled back to the spinner, then Wood – who clocked 93mph – rapped Dean Elgar on the arm.
For Zubayr Hamza, a No3 batsman of diminishing returns, Wood was worthy of an assist. It was not a great look to back away from Wood, turn down an easy second run to face the spinner not the quick, then tamely plop said spinner into short-leg’s hands. Especially as the rain, bringing stumps with it, rolled in three balls later, leaving South Africa 60 for two and with a mountain to climb.