South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Cape Town, 1st day January 2, 2016

Stokes assault wrests initiative after Rabada fires

Close England 317 for 5 (Stokes 74*, Hales 60, Root 50, Rabada 3-74) v South Africa
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

On a day when the whole of Melbourne seemed to have descended on the MCG to witness a domestic T20 derby, Test cricket needed an enticing day to reassure its admirers that it still had a great future as well as a glorious past. It found it at Newlands, packed to the brim and looking at its most resplendent as England made decent first use of an excellent batting strip in the second Test.

Around 12,000 England supporters were among the 20,195 in Cape Town, enough to encourage predictions that this Test will set record attendances in the city if it lasts the course. There was no tablecloth over Table Mountain, but the batsmen had napkins in place. The travelling supporters soaked up the rays and wondered whether England's first hundred would be logged before the sunburn really began to set in. The sunburn won, although a late spurt by Ben Stokes, 74 not out at the close, provided some heat of its own.

By the time the second new ball was immediately taken, England, at 271 for 5, had been slightly tentative, held at three an over. But Stokes' immediate joust against Chris Morris, South Africa's debutant seamer, brought four boundaries in an over. Stokes muscled his way past 50 and, in leage with Jonny Bairstow, 46 runs came in seven overs before overtime elapsed with three overs still unused.

It was a bountiful pitch, showing decent pace and bounce, encouraging presumptuous thoughts of 500, but it was a long time before England fully availed themselves of its pleasures. Barring a bad second morning, England now have a golden opportunity to build on their 241-run win against South Africa in the opening Test in Durban.

After waving goodbye to a problematic 2015, South Africa must have been encouraged by the gameness shown by their four frontline bowlers, which partially compensated for a morning session in which they bowled too short and too straight.

Most exciting of all, though, were the flashes of potential from Kagiso Rabada, a 20-year-old quick who took three top-order wickets on his home Test debut, dislodging Alastair Cook before lunch and removing Nick Compton and James Taylor, first ball, in successive balls either side of tea.

At 20, Rabada looks a considerable prospect. Newlands might have been a demanding challenge for a bowler whose natural length looked a bit shorter than the Philander-style probing demanded on such a surface, but it sure beat his only other experience of Test cricket last year as he toiled away on India's calculated turners.

Newlands carries dangers for a visiting side batting first - there again, there are generally dangers whatever they do, such has been South Africa's dominance here against all but Australia - but recent hot weather had stripped most of the first-session threat out of the surface.

Morris, who had shed tears when awarded his first Test cap before start of play, was given the new ball ahead of Rabada. A conservative move perhaps, and not entirely convincing considering that Morris' international career has been spent as a one-day specialist and that his fate against the tourists in a warm-up match in Pietermaritzburg was the return 0 for 93 in the match.

Rabada's opening lines were also fluffed: full and fast followed by short and wide, both deliveries despatched to the boundary by Hales. With the likelihood that Dale Steyn and Philander might return by the end of the series, Rabada knew he had to earn another opportunity. He worked up enough pace to strike Hales on the back, had good control of the seam and looked at the graceful and athletic end of the fast-bowling template.

Cook was a big first wicket for Rabada, departing before lunch to a wonderful catch at third slip by Morris, flinging himself low to his left.

England edged towards a position of strength in a second-wicket stand of 74 between Hales and Compton, a somewhat idiosyncratic affair in which both batsmen played in fits and starts, two batsmen seeking the right tempo, but coming from different directions: Hales a dasher trying to be responsible, Compton a painstaking soul aware that his innings must not lose impetus.

Hales never looked entirely comfortable, encapsulated by three slightly streaky boundaries off Rabada soon after lunch to take him to his maiden Test fifty, but he will rightly regard it as an important staging post nonetheless. It was a good ball that dismissed him, Morkel finding bounce from a good length around off stump and de Villiers diving across Dean Elgar at first slip to hold the catch.

Compton's first three runs encompassed 38 balls, leading one contributor to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball service to remark memorably that he had "the highest ratio of handsome dashing looks to handsome dashing strokeplay."

Ben Stokes took the attack to South Africa in the closing overs © Getty Images

He found impetus with a favourite get-out shot - a paddle sweep against the offspin of Dane Piedt - and then to general surprise drove him straight for six. There was considerable irony in the fact that his third Test six took him level with his grandfather Denis, who managed the same number in 78 Tests but was much treasured for being a great entertainer. You made your own fun in the 1950s.

Rabada, who bowled a combative pre-tea spell, removed Compton with what became the last ball before tea when he pulled a short ball sweetly enough but straight to Temba Bavuma at midwicket. A first-baller for James Taylor, pushing at a wide one, gave the bowler two in two.

The stage looked set for Root, who had made 13 Test half-centuries in a prolific 2015, but to his frustration had repeatedly failed to deliver a big one when well set. He survived on 13, a devilishly difficult chance off Morkel which Morris, this time diving to his left from gully, let slip through his fingers. He was fortunate again during Rabada's pre-tea assault when he was done for pace on a pull shot and the ball lobbed up safely from his incomplete stroke.

There were also enough of Root's usual delicacies on show - the best a pull against Rabada - to suggest the omens for South Africa were not good, but the New Year retained old habits and, as soon as another half-century was stored away, he gave the persevering Morris a first Test wicket when he chopped him to the wicketkeeper. It has been a common mode of dismissal when well set.

Hashim Amla was reluctant to go for the jugular with only four frontline bowlers and the second new ball only 12 overs away: understandable but probably mistaken. Instead, Stiaan van Zyl trundled in, time was generally wasted and by the time South Africa did meaningfully seek late wickets, Stokes crashed all around him. How South Africa, a bowler light, would value someone like him.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps