The Lord’s clock had already ticked past 1pm by the time Anrich Nortje turned to bowl the final ball of the morning, scowling his game-face scowl as he glanced up at Ben Stokes: a genuinely terrifying expression, the face of a man with a deep and irresolvable sense of injustice, who can also – did we mention this? – bowl 97mph chest-thudding in-duckers.
Nortje really is a wonderful fast bowler. Here, his morning was split between two short spells, one from each end. He isn’t tall, but has a fearsome whippy strength, skips off his back foot into a thrilling catapult motion, chest on but still smooth and easy in his movements.
It has been a steady journey to this point, a career that has gone multi-franchise, all-format supernova as he approaches his prime. He made his debut for Eastern Province against Namibia eight years ago. His first two wickets in professional cricket both belonged to an opener called Wayne Raw, who himself sounds like the main character in a Martin Amis novel about Afrikaner fast bowlers of the 1980s. Anrich Nortje to Wayne Raw at Windhoek. Imagine how hot it was. Imagine how much meat they ate for lunch.
Nortje, now 28, played through university, was always quick, and has matured now into a hugely skilful bowler. Forty minutes earlier he had produced a beautiful little miniature, clanking Jonny Bairstow’s middle stump out of the ground with a 93mph in-ducker, the perfect execution of the perfect delivery, perfectly tailored to his opponent’s weakness, with the perfect cinematic endpoint. Nortje even produced the perfect celebration, falling to his knees and pumping his right arm like a man very carefully puncturing a water bed with a bread knife.
And how he had Stokes in his sights; and not just Stokes, but the day, the mood, the vibe around this thing. England were 100 for four at that point and rollicking along at almost four an over, poised at one of those crossroad moments. Was this good? Was it good in the new way of being good, good energy, good vibes, good forward motion? Which way would this thing go?
Stokes had been batting as he has all summer, like a man in shoes three sizes too small, leaping out of his crease, pirouetting on his heels, belting the ball at the fielders. Kagiso Rabada had bowled beautifully with the new ball. He came back 20 minutes before lunch and you felt this was was the game right here, the moment to defend with aggression, to defend as a form of attack, basically, to defend. Ben. Please.
Just a thought. At the other end Ollie Pope had just gone to a brisk, fluent, agreeable fifty off 69 balls. Stokes drove Marco Jansen though mid-on for four twice, a memory of how he has batted at his best, a shot that rests on being still, letting the ball come into the arc of his wrists and simply leaning into it with an easy, brutal elegance.
Would he have left this ball, or played it more softly, more carefully if he hadn’t also slashed one through point earlier in the over, if he wasn’t panting away on 20 off 29 balls? Probably not. And it was a lovely piece of bowling from Nortje, straightening up, turning Stokes around and taking a thick-ish edge to third slip.
With that the balance of power, of risk and reward, seemed to settle decisively one way. In the buildup to this game there had been some amusingly convoluted badinage about exactly who, hosts or tourists, was most obsessed with England’s new “brave” approach. They keep talking about it. Well, they keep talking about us talking about it. Who, exactly, is mind-gaming who here? Who gets to live rent free in who’s head? Is it a kind of summer house swap?
With this in mind there will be an urge to conclude that with that last ball before lunch, by reducing England to 116 for six on a rain-ruined first day, South Africa have blown a massive hole in that rather callow new era, the sloganeering, the brilliant run chases.
And yet, of course, nobody ever pretended this would work every time. Stokes has, by many orthodox measures, batted horribly this summer. England have won every game. He averages 40. Plus, the other point here is England were essentially out-Bazzed on this first morning, met with a greater force, a greater controlled aggression.
Three of Nortje’s first six balls went to the boundary. By lunch he had figures of 6-37-2. His first ball of the afternoon was up at at 93mph. Soon after he bowled Ben Foakes to finish with three for 43 and Stuart Broad already at the wicket peering out from under his helmet like a man being asked to fight off a cloud of pterodactyls with a baguette. This was not a victory for steadiness or playing the percentages.
Perhaps the only real lesson on day one at Lord’s was that South Africa have a breathtakingly, almost pointlessly fine pace attack. Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen take their wickets at 20, Rabada at 22. This is generational stuff, all fine lines, menace and variation: a perfect Test pace quartet for a nation that really isn’t going to play too many Tests from here.