Led by Stuart Broad, England kept the pressure on a fragile South Africa batting line-up to leave the opening Test fascinatingly poised after two days in Durban. Broad’s three wickets, including the kingpins of Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, coupled with a valuable scalp for Moeen Ali left South Africa 137 for 4 in reply to England’s hard-fought 303
From 247 for 5, England would have envisaged more than what they ended with but Morne Morkel blew a hole in the much-vaunted lower-order strength with three wickets in six balls. A last-wicket stand of 36, with Broad finishing unbeaten on 32, ensured the innings did not completely crumble and the contest was even again when Broad extracted two wickets in his first spell to leave South Africa 14 for 2.
Broad later returned to find the edge of a threatening de Villiers, ending a third-wicket stand of 86 with Dean Elgar, and Faf du Plessis paid for an ugly swipe against Moeen. Elgar glued South Africa together with an unbeaten 67, although he would have been lbw on 58 had England reviewed an lbw shout from Ben Stokes, and Temba Bavuma held firm during the closing moments of a day where 11 overs were lost despite an early start.
Leading the attack in the absence of James Anderson, it took Broad just two deliveries to make his first mark on the innings when, starting around the wicket in a clear piece of pre-series planning, he angled a delivery back into Stiaan van Zyl, who misjudged the line horribly and had his off stump smashed.
The out-of-form Amla was given a working over and fell to arguably the third chance he gave in a difficult 24-ball stay. Evidence suggested that he offered a very thin edge off Broad on 1, which was not given or reviewed, and then he provided a clear chance on 2 when he nicked Chris Woakes but Jonny Bairstow grassed the chance diving in front of first slip. However, Broad produced a beautiful legcutter to nick the edge again and this time Bairstow snaffled a regulation chance.
The early wickets meant the ball was still hard when de Villiers entered at No. 4 and he survived a close call on 11 when a leading edge against Steven Finn was ruled not to have carried to Stokes in the gully. Stokes dived forward for the catch and after initially claiming it indicated his uncertainty; the soft signal from the on-field umpires was not out and, as so often in such circumstances, it was not overruled on the TV evidence.
De Villiers played himself in either side of tea and there were signs of him starting to dominate when he lofted Moeen straight for six. However, he was outfoxed by a cunning piece of bowling by Broad who rolled his fingers across another legcutter, which moved just enough to find the outside edge.
Dean Elgar steadied South Africa in their reply
Broad, though, needed some wicket-taking assistance to chip away at South Africa. Woakes and Finn both bowled excellent spells – Woakes’ pace was eye-catching as he nudged 90mph – but it was Moeen who nipped in when du Plessis, perhaps carrying the residual baggage from India, came down the pitch and missed a swipe across the line. For a moment it appeared Bairstow had missed a stumping chance, but the ball grazed the bail with just enough force to dislodge it although there was the curious sight of a bowled dismissal being referred to the third umpire.
As batsmen struggled to play the defining innings, Elgar stood firm. Much like Nick Compton for England he left well outside off, making the bowlers come straighter to him which allowed runs into the leg side, his dominant scoring area. His fifty came from 93 deliveries, brought up with a rare moment of freedom as he followed de Villiers’ lead by depositing Moeen over the boundary, but despite the sun being out conditions did not swing in favour of the batsmen.
When England resumed on 179 for 4 following the late dismissal of James Taylor on the opening evening, Stokes was quick out of the blocks before top edging a pull off Morkel from a delivery that was not short enough for the stroke. The new-ball brought an increase in the tempo, firstly as Compton and Bairstow enjoyed the extra hardness of the ball to take their stand to 51 and then when Morkel changed the complexion of the morning.
Compton under-edged a pull – a rare occasion in his 236-ball stay where he had not been fully committed to a stroke – then Moeen edged a ball angled across him and Woakes was pinned lbw by a delivery which would have clipped leg stump. With Dale Steyn a little down on pace, and a suggestion he was struggling with an injury, it was a vital interjection from Morkel at a time when Amla would have been pondering how to juggle his three-man pace attack.
Bairstow ducked into a short delivery from Morkel and a short while later was well caught at second slip for 41 as he tried to be aggressive against Kyle Abbott – his third score in the 40s in England’s recent overseas Tests – but Broad played smartly. Finn showed a straight bat before missing a full delivery from Steyn who claimed his 50th scalp against England and moved ahead of Curtly Ambrose with 406 wickets in the all-time list.