Sometimes a fightback is not a mix of thrilling counter-punches and exuberant attacking. Sometimes it is quiet men showing resolve, understated discipline and resilience. Yesterday England were truly thankful that two lesser regarded players showed all those admirable qualities in abundance.
Nick Compton, a player that had been summarily dropped in 2013 after nine matches in which he averaged 34 and James Taylor, the diminutive scamperer, rescued England with a superb fourth wicket partnership of 125.
They stonewalled, sprinted, let pass by and attacked judiciously and in doing so demonstrated the exact mental strength that make successful Test match batsmen.
They came together with England in trouble at 49 for 3. When Taylor was dismissed in the last minutes of the day as bad light curtailed play England were in the match on 174 but whether they remain so depends on Compton, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali. These players need to bat another 50 overs and get the score above 300 and preferably in excess of 350.
To do so will mean thwarting Dale Steyn. He was superb from the very start and showed why he is considered the premier fast bowler in the world.
He pitched up, mixed conventional seam positions with scrambled seams and constantly demanded the batsman to play. He is not a bouncer bowler who destroys. Instead, like a street magician he picks batsman’s pockets with skill and swiftness.
He was given the luxury of his captain, Hashim Amla, winning the toss and bowling. It was a typical, sultry, humid Durban day but with more cloud than usual. In short a perfect day for seam and swing bowling. The pitch itself was a little greasy, which considering the rain around which did occasionally interrupt the day was not surprising, although it did lack a little pace.
Steyn did for Alastair Cook early, the England captain just following one and edging behind and then he was allowed a good rest by rain. Poor old Alex Hales was doing well in the opening overs but after the rain break had to basically open the innings again and edged a drive behind. Steyn was bowling beautifully but his old mucker, Morne Morkel and Kyle Abbott were a little less penetrative and threatening.
Annoyingly for England Joe Root was lbw to the off spin of Dane Piedt. He had looked good for 24 and on a seamer’s day it is frustrating to lose a top order batsman to a lesser spinner.
This is why the Compton and Taylor partnership was so important. For the past 12 to 18 months England have relied on Cook and Root for the bulk of their runs. With both gone cheaply and everything favouring the bowling side the innings could have collapsed and the match been lost. They are a curious mix but complement each other. Compton is happy defending. He has a good understanding of his game and is not a dominator of bowlers. He accumulates and trusts his technique and knows if he bats time he will have a score. Taylor is much busier as befits a man of 5ft 6ins.
Quick on his feet he attacked the short ball well and ran singles that many others would not consider. The beauty of him is he does that for both batters. It was noticeable how alert Compton was for singles which is an unheralded but highly effective tactic for putting pressure back on bowlers. They love nothing more than a long sequence of deliveries at the same batter and as the pressure builds on the player a rash shot is more likely.
Shane Warne states that three of four maidens brings a wicket. Quick runners like Taylor help prevent that. When he prods a ball in the leg side and sets off he resembles a meerkat under attack. Similarly when he knows he is running to the danger end he calls his partner through and a run is stolen. It was a shame he was dismissed moments from the close of play but he was undone by Steyn, just reward for a day’s hard work by the seamer.
These three – Steyn, Compton and Taylor – excelled on a hard day. The team that dominates tomorrow will be in good position to win this match. It is all to play for.