The first two days of this Test have had an odd symmetry about them. Both sides have suffered from dramatic top order collapses, and in fact both lost their fourth wicket on 54, before recovering to decent positions. South Africa are probably in the better position, however, as they have the security of knowing that their tail has wagged (whilst England are still only hoping that theirs do) and they are not the ones under pressure to win the match.
Part of that success from the tail was Vernon Philander scoring his maiden Test fifty this morning. He joint top-scored in the innings with 61 and frustrated England by building good partnerships with the other bowlers. South Africa’s last four batsmen, all pure bowlers, made 114 runs between them. England did not bowl too poorly this morning, but Anderson for once did not use the new ball terribly well. He kept banging it in short to the batsmen, but he did not control it well enough to make it really count. Broad was still down on pace, but was pitching the ball up and getting it to swing well and probably deserved more than just the one wicket that he got. England would not have been too disappointed with their efforts, 309 is hardly a formidable total. but the lopsided nature of the scorecard was quite disappointing.
As disappointing as South Africa’s resistance and England’s post-lunch collapse were, probably the most gutting aspect of the day for England supporters came on the stroke of lunch. Andrew Strauss got off to an excellent start with the bat in his hundredth Test, but was bowled through the gate on twenty and in the last over before lunch. It was Morne Morkel to get him yet again and with an excellent delivery. Going around the wicket, Morkel had got several balls to shape away from the left-handed Strauss and finally nipped one back in and through the gate to bowl the England captain. Whilst Strauss maybe should not have had that gate, there was not a lot he could have done. It was a fantastic piece of bowling and the demoralising effect possibly played a role in the collapse that came after the interval.
England have at least done a better job of recovering with their recognised batsmen than South Africa did, South Africa lost their fifth wicket on 105 and their sixth on 163, and will hope to leave less work for their tail. Jonny Bairstow was responsible for a lot of England’s recovery. He was dropped after a poor series against the West Indies in which it was decided that he had a weakness against the short ball, but three innings always seemed like an absurdly small sample size and he went about showing the folly of that judgement today. South Africa had clearly heard about his supposed weakness and gave him a steady diet of short stuff at the start of his innings. That’s not an easy thing to get through for anyone, regardless of any real or supposed weakness, but Bairstow did so well. He not only managed to fight through the difficult bit but also managed to score some runs as he did so and after tea the South Africans had clearly tired. Bairstow and Bell scored more fluently after the interval and put on over a hundred before Bell was out to a slightly loose drive off Philander. It came during a good over in which Philander had beat the bat twice and the wicket taking ball was a good one, but Bell looked as though he had got just a bit too relaxed and was maybe a bit careless. Matt Prior played a chancy innings, but both he and Bairstow survived to stumps.
England trail by 101 runs at stumps with five wickets still in hand. On paper one would probably back them to get to parity, but there is the obstacle of the second new ball to be negotiated. It is due after eight overs of the morning session tomorrow and what England do in the morning session will probably dictate with how much a lead or deficit England end up. Given that England batting second and needing to win they cannot really afford a significant deficit and could very much do with a decent lead. Prior and Bairstow need to survive to the new ball tomorrow and get themselves well enough set to at least get a few off it even if they get out to it in the end. Prior can be quite dangerous in that sort of situation, but one expects that a lot will really come down to whether or not Broad and Swann can score appreciable runs. Broad has talent, but has been out of form this summer whilst Swann is very hit-or-miss (often literally). Unless Prior and Bairstow do the very unlikely and knock off the deficit themselves, England will very much need Broad and Swann to show up with the bat tomorrow.