South Africa crush England inside three days to take a 1-0 series lead

Well that was over quickly. And it would have been even faster had rain not interrupted proceedings on the opening day.

It took just 171.5 overs for South Africa to obliterate England in the first Test at Lord’s — that’s a little less than two full days of cricket, for those counting at home.

But while at times this summer England have played Test cricket at a speed that makes breakneck seem pedestrian, this was not a case of reckless aggression gone horribly wrong.

South Africa were simply a far better team in the series opener.

Every decision Dean Elgar made seemed kissed by good fortune, from the moment he ignored his ingrained preference to bat first after winning the toss to his bowling changes after lunch on the third day, each one bearing fruit as England’s resistance crumbled in the bright Lord’s sunshine.

It wasn’t luck, though. It was smart tactics based on knowledge of the opposition and executed with skill and precision.

England have enjoyed chasing this summer, but here they were unable to chase down South Africa’s first innings total of 326, falling 12 runs short before the scheduled tea time.

Some were out playing ordinary shots, while others were undone by terrific balls until it was inevitable they would be polished off well short, the first time England have lost by an innings at Lord’s since 2003, the opponent on that occasion another South African side.

That South Africa’s lead swelled to 116 was in part, at least, because England stuck to their short-pitched bowling guns, a move that allowed the tail, led by Keshav Maharaj (41) and Anrich Nortje (28), to flourish.

It also put immediate pressure on England’s top order and there was little to suggest that questions surrounding Zak Crawley’s place in the XI will subside before the second Test at Old Trafford next week.

Three times Crawley squirted a leading edge while trying to turn the ball to the leg side and another short stay at the crease ended when Elgar brought Maharaj on to bowl the eighth over, well aware that the opener has struggled in the past against left-arm spin.

It was one of several inspired decisions that took just three balls to have the desired effect, as Crawley completely misjudged a sweep and was rapped on the front pad, a total of 13 streaky runs to his name.

Before the match Ben Stokes spoke of backing players who have been selected because they are judged to be good enough at Test level but as Crawley trudged back to the Pavilion it begged the question of whether it might do him more harm than good to persist with him at this stage; such choices are harder to make when a team starts losing.

With the last ball before lunch, Maharaj also had Ollie Pope’s wicket in his pocket and again it was smart judgement by the captain.

Maharaj struck Pope on the pad as he tried to tuck the ball to the leg side and Elgar backed his bowler by reviewing when Pope was not given out; three reds, another decision turned to gold.

It was, perhaps, a little surprising to see Joe Root jab with hard hands at a Lungi Ngidi ball that left him a little; softer hands may have seen the ball go to ground in front of Aiden Markram at second slip.

But the plan to Jonny Bairstow was transparently clear with Ngidi immediately targeting the stumps, his first salvo barely missing Bairstow’s off stump as he shouldered arms.

Time for Nortje? Of course it was, and he ripped out the next three wickets with roars of vein-popping fury that would have made Dale Steyn proud.

Bairstow and Alex Lees were caught behind, victims of good line and length delivered at speeds kissing 150kph. And while Ben Foakes also edged to Kyle Verrayne, it was an uglier swipe at a short and wide delivery that was just as quick.

Step up, Kagiso Rabada, on duty to halt Stuart Broad’s flurry of boundaries and a six — he made 35 wild runs off just 19 balls against a barrage of bouncers before the inevitable arrived, one swipe too many landing in the hands of Elgar at mid-off.

And England’s resistance was all but snuffed out when Maharaj took a blinder at deep mid-wicket, off Rabada again, to dismiss Ben Stokes and   leave Marco Jansen to mop up the remaining wicket.

This loss will be the first real test of England’s commitment to play in the manner that brought them such thrilling success against New Zealand and India.

Stokes was adamant the result wouldn’t change their approach or their philosophy.

“It was an off-game for us, and that’s absolutely fine,” said Stokes. “It’s not something I’m going to be throwing our toys out of the pram over.

“The message for me and Baz upstairs will be, did we commit to everything the way we committed to the first four Tests of the summer?

“If everyone can say, yes, 100%, we just didn’t execute, then things are good. We’ll move on to the next Test match, and go out there and try and win.

“You have to live in the moment and ride the wave, whether that be of success or failure. We’ve got two games left. If we hold on to this for too long, and carry baggage into the next game, we’re already one step behind South Africa.

“I want us to be a team where we’re one step ahead.”

Amid all South Africa’s celebrations, an enterprising soul might have asked their captain for this week’s lottery numbers, such was his talent for picking a winning move.

But the speed and scale of this victory surprised even Elgar.

“I didn’t wake up this morning thinking I’d be doing a presser before five o’clock,” Elgar said. “I’m not going to make us go into a comfort zone because I know what complacency can do in international sport.

“We need to enjoy these moments. We did it at a unique place — a sold-out Lord’s on a Friday.

“It’s special for a lot of guys who haven’t experienced that before. We need to enjoy the next two days and then focus on the next Test.”

To hear Stokes and Elgar speak was to hear two strong personalities  confident of their respective approaches.

Both of them may be right, of course. And South Africa may just have been a better team this week, aided by Elgar’s Meidas touch.



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