England v South Africa, 3rd Investec Test, Kia Oval, 2nd day July 28, 2017

Testing conditions expose South Africa's top order

Even when South Africa have been winning in recent times it's been despite a lack of big hundreds from the main batsmen

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The hundreds just aren't happening - McKenzie

So there were clouds. This is England. There are always clouds somewhere, right?

And there was movement. This is England. They use the Duke ball. It swings, it seams, it wobbles, it whizzes.

But these are South African batsmen brought up on pitches greener than most outfields, bouncier than rubber, who learn to survive and then thrive in conditions others emerge from, at best, humbled, at worst, hurt. These are batsmen who are, as Faf du Plessis explained when asked about his decision to bat first at Trent Bridge, "not scared" of a bit of spice. "Brave," du Plessis called them, especially the openers and Dean Elgar was first to take guard at The Oval

He refused to be drawn into playing at anything that swerved away so Stuart Broad's first few screamers were ignored. Broad had to get straighter and closer, whisper his threat rather than shout it. "How did you not touch that?" Broad asked Elgar after the fifth ball of his second over veered dangerously close to the edge but couldn't find it. Elgar shrugged sheepishly, admitted he had no idea and then, as his luck sank in, just grinned.

Broad had to go shorter, show more aggression, add the adjectives to the sentence he was scripting that basically said, "I am going not going to make this easy for you" to Elgar. The fourth ball of his fourth over landed on a length and reared up towards Elgar's nose. He threw his head back and pulled his bat in, the ball leapt over him and missed everything. Broad didn't bother asking any questions about that one. Elgar couldn't even bring himself to grin in relief. But he survived. Just like du Plessis promised he would.

Why then, after such a fight against big, bad Broad which included a fair amount of discipline in his shot (non)selection, did Elgar decide to go chasing after Toby Roland-Jones? He reached for one, even as it tried to avoid his outside edge, then came forward to another and although Elgar was so convinced the sound was bat-pad that he reviewed, Ultra Edge showed a faint spike when ball passed bat and the on-field decision stood.

And so it began.

Faf du Plessis pads up against James Anderson and regrets it © Getty Images

Hashim Amla had an lbw appeal reviewed off the first ball he faced. Had he been given out, he would have stayed out for it was an umpire's call on review and Aleem Dar had not been convinced of this one. Roland-Jones did not have to wait too long to get his own back. Amla was out two overs later when a lifting delivery clipped his glove.

At 30 for 3, it suddenly looked like having Quinton de Kock as high as No.4 was risky, especially because he changed absolutely nothing about his approach. The ball after Amla's dismissal was short and wide from Broad, the same Broad who had been such a beast to Elgar, de Kock cut it for four. The first ball of the next over was from Roland-Jones, the same double-barrelled newbie who plucked Heino Kuhn and Amla, but it was on the pads so de Kock clipped it for four. Three balls after that, de Kock drilled Roland-Jones through mid-off. Three boundaries in 10 balls. De Kock seemed to be playing an entirely different game.

That de Kock is given the freedom to play naturally is going to serve South Africa well in future, but they may be wondering when it will naturally occur to de Kock to rein it in. Maybe never. Certainly not today, when he tried to work one to the leg side and outside-edged to gully.

Before the Test, du Plessis admitted he had not seen much of Roland-Jones. By 5pm, he may have decided he never wanted to see Roland-Jones again, even though it wasn't the debutant that dismissed du Plessis and sunk South Africa further. That was the old-timer, James Anderson, who soon saw that movement off the seam, not swing, was what he should be search for. Du Plessis has made his reputation on defence but he has not been able to replicate the efforts of Adelaide or Johannesburg too many times recently. This time, he got a good ball from a great bowler and should have offered a shot. He didn't.

The rest…well, the rest was a case of how long they could last and how close they could come - first to 100 and then to avoiding the follow-on - but for South Africa it will also be about answering questions about what has become a familiar batting concern which has crept up on them over the last year. Even though, South Africa have only lost two of the 14 Tests they have played in that time, their top-order have not been performing to the standards of the line-up in years gone by. They've had 12 centuries, in those games an average less than one a match. Over the same period, India, Australia and Sri Lanka have average more than one century a match. This year is also South Africa's second-leanest year in the last six (in years where they have played more than five Tests). Only 2015, which included their disastrous tour to India, was worse and it's worth considering what's caused them to drop off.

Personnel plays some role. Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and for now, AB de Villiers, re no longer part of the Test set-up and Amla has not scored a daddy-hundred since his double against England in January 2016. Elgar grinds much more than he flows, and not having a settled opening partner has not helped, JP Duminy was always out of form and while de Kock and Temba Bavuma often had each other, there were many occasions in which they lacked the lower-order support to go really big.

But there are also conditions. South Africa have spent the last year playing at home, in Australia, in New Zealand and in England - all places where the ball can star as much as, or more than, the bat as the manner of the victories illustrated. They won the series in Australia because they bowled the hosts out for 85 in Hobart, they won at home because they groomed their green mambas and then lured Sri Lanka's batsmen into its mouth and they won in Wellington because they bowled New Zealand out for 171 at the Basin Reserve, but that was the series that warned them all was not as well as it could be.

In that same match, South Africa were 94 for 6 in their first innings before de Kock and Bavuma rescued them and 80 for 5 and 95 runs behind after four days in the next Test in Hamilton but rain saved them. They will be hoping for something similar this time, though there is much more time in the game and their situation is much more dire. Yes, there are clouds and yes there is movement and yes this is England, but where is the real South Africa?

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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