Alastair Cook toughed it out against an impressive South African pace attack on a rain-affected first day at The Oval, but we’re still no closer to knowing how the rest of England’s batting order should fit around him.
What to take from another Thursday at The Oval, the 100th first day of Test cricket here in 138 years? That Alastair Cook (82*) is as old as the hills? That no one puts Rabada in the corner? That Big Vern is a champion cruiserweight who has unified all the belts? That the composition of England’s top six remains as fluidly shapeless as Pollock’s No.5 and that this series is on a knife-edge?
First things first. We need to talk about Keaton. Jennings’ pained nine-ball stay, caught in the slips prodding at Vernon Philander, felt like the end of the beginning of the beginning of the end. That maiden Test hundred in India, a triumph of guts and grit, has since given way to more pressing technical concerns. Six single-figure scores in his next eight Test innings – three ducks – looks at this stage like becoming an overarching narrative.
It’s nasty and brutish, Test cricket, and it can also be short. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy: this time last summer Jennings was in the form of his life, unstoppable in Division One, en route to seven Championship centuries as the lynchpin of an ebullient team. A year on, Durham are languishing in the second tier, he’s made just one first-class century all summer, and three runs from his last three Test innings. He needs a score in the second innings – not necessarily a big one, just something of note, something to suggest that his current tendency to stay rooted to the crease, mechanically playing the line as if grooving against a bowling machine, is a symptom of bad form and not yet terminal.
And so to Tom Westley, the latest experiment at No.3, and the first man to debut at first drop for England on home soil since John Crawley in 1994. The similarities don’t stop there. Crawley was a stylist – godlike through mid-wicket yet distinctly agnostic through the covers – and Westley comes in carrying a similar reputation.
Earlier this summer he told AOC: “I think I’m better off my legs than almost anyone else, so why not bring that into the game early on?” After half-an-hour here, we already had compelling evidence to support his assertion. His only two scoring shots were both leggy flourishes, one through square-leg, the other off the hip fine of long-leg. Both drew purrs of appreciation. A pair of crisp boundaries off Keshav Maharaj then took him to 16, and when Chris Morris and Kagiso Rabada telegraphed a plan to plough outside his off stump before throwing in the in-ducker, he read that too, flicking the straight one away for his fifth four. Lunch came with Westley on 25. We all dared to dream.
On a greenish track, the ball jagged all day, and South Africa have obviously got the tools to make it so. And the Morris delivery that did for Westley, three balls after lunch, caught the seam and went away a touch. But the nature of the dismissal, caught with ease in the slips as he looked to hit straight back past the bowler rather than through the natural line towards mid-off, resulting in the bat coming down at a slight angle, will nonetheless excite the technical committee. The counterpoint here, of course, is that no batsman ever came and went through Test cricket with a flawless technique. Overall, Westley showed good judgement and composure; today the game afforded him just the one mistake.
Finally, Dawid Malan. What to say? Twelve years a professional cricketer, dreaming of this very scene, and what does he get? Rabada hooping a monstrous thing through his defences and leaving him in the dirt. The hefty consolation is that it would probably have bowled Lara. He will, like Westley, have plenty more chances to show his wares. The same is not so easily said of Jennings.
The counter to all this fidgety impermanence was the totem at the other end. On 72, Morris throws a voluptuous half-volley outside Alastair Cook’s off stump. He gets down on one knee, preparing to live a little, but at the last second he pulls away. And there he remains, on his haunches, perturbed, for a moment, to have found himself sidling up to temptation. Next ball is a little tighter to his off stump. He leaves that one too. One day he will leave us for good. Let’s hope it’s not for a few years yet.