The laws of cricket may be the domain of MCC but on the opening day of England versus South Africa at Lord’s it was the law of sod that held sway: after a six-week wait for Test cricket to return and the driest July since 1935, rain returned with a vengeance.
Still, some 32 overs were sent down before the terminal deluge began at 2.09pm and, though enough play to rule out a refund for the soggy spectators, it also underlined predictions of a particularly tasty series ahead. England, aggressors these days under the captaincy of Ben Stokes, stumbled to 116 for six with Ollie Pope, 61 not out, the only batter to resist a fine bowling display from Dean Elgar’s tourists.
Amid a bombardment of questions during the build-up regarding England’s so-called “Bazball” approach, one of Elgar’s stock replies has been along the lines of “let’s see how this caper fares against my bowlers”. Most captains talk up their attacks but the South African has a particularly potent one through a blend of class, pace and variety.
Elgar was just as certain upon winning the toss, citing the moody cloud cover overhead for his decision to bowl rather than a deliberate attempt to throw England off kilter after their four successive Test wins batting second. Even with Kagiso Rabada slightly undercooked following an ankle ligament injury on tour, it looked to be the obvious call.
And so while England hustled along at 3.6 runs per over and struck 13 fours, there was a case to say that team orders could be blamed for only one of the six wickets to fall. Alex Lees was the culprit here, the first of Rabada’s two early new-ball strikes when, shortly after slashing his first boundary over the slip cordon, the opener looked to force a rising ball through the covers without footwork and nicked off for five.
Otherwise it was a case of high-class seam bowling ideally suited to the soupy conditions, and the Dukes ball – seemingly hardier after its early season issues with softness – offering Elgar’s quartet of seamers swing through the air and movement off a green-tinged pitch. The odd delivery rose sharply off a length too.
Rabada, one of just three South Africans to have played at Lord’s previously, showed little sign of his recent lay-off too, his speeds in the high 80s and his line ever probing. To that end, Zak Crawley may well have taken a philosophical view of the off stump delivery that demanded a shot but flew to slip off the edge. That said, his numbers this summer – 151 runs at 16 – are stretching England’s desire to be loyal.
But as well as Rabada bowled first-up – Lungi Ngidi, his new ball partner, was less threatening but still frugal – it was South Africa’s two change bowlers who pointed to the significant challenge England face over the next four weeks. The wiry Marco Jansen is a unique prospect as a 6ft 7in left-armer who swings the ball, while Anrich Nortje, a bowler they know well from their last meeting in 2019-20, remains fast and nasty.
Jansen replaced Ngidi after five overs at the Pavilion End and took an instant liking to the slope. Joe Root was newly arrived with the score an all-too familiar 25 for two, unleashed one brutal cut for four, but he was soon on his way lbw for eight when Jansen brought a full ball back into his pads. It looked plumb live – the umpire Nitin Menon thought so – even if Hawkeye suggested the ball would merely graze leg stump.
Thereafter it was Nortje who dominated en route to figures of three for 43 from nine overs, following a slightly rusty start by bowling the in-form Jonny Bairstow for a duck. Some may point to the mode of dismissal being all-too familiar from the Yorkshireman but the 93mph inswinger that uprooted his middle stump would have done for many others.
Out strode Stokes at 55 for four and one wondered whether his frenetic approach from earlier in the season would follow. Bar a couple of early sashays down the pitch, the England captain looked to be building an innings and two on-driven fours suggested a game in good order. But he fell for 20 off the last ball of the morning to make it 100 for five, squared up by one that nipped down the slope and took the edge.
At the other end, Pope had played nicely for a 10th score of 50 or more in Test cricket. A reviewed lbw from Ngidi on nine was shown to be sliding down leg and the right-hander’s occasional flirtations outside off kept Elgar and his fellow slips interested. But overall he was busy at the crease, took on Nortje when he erred, and offered the latest piece of evidence that the promotion to No 3 this summer could work out.
Nortje was the standout from this truncated initial skirmish, however, and during the six overs of play after lunch the right-armer sent Ben Foakes packing for six to spark the latest of his full-throated celebrations. It was a slightly meek waft from Foakes that saw the ball cannon on to the stumps but pace – an asset England do not possess because of injuries – can induce such indecision.
This final breakthrough came just moments before an afternoon watching lakes form on the outfield while thunder rumbled overhead and means Pope will resume on the second day with Stuart Broad for company. England’s No 8 used all of his nous to slow things down ahead of the rain but he would surely have rather been bowling.