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Cook stands firm after Philander threatens England again

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#PoliteEnquiries: Why don't England have a Philander? (3:41)

George Dobell and Jarrod Kimber answer your questions from The Oval after the opening day of the third Test against South Africa (3:41)

England 171 for 4 (Cook 82*, Stokes 21*) v South Africa

Recklessness was the charge laid against England after their double collapse at Trent Bridge invited South Africa back into the series, but rarely, if ever, has such an accusation been levelled against Alastair Cook. England presented him as the chief witness for the defence at the start of the third Test at The Oval - and defence is what he diligently delivered.

On a crabby day frequently taunted by heavy showers, England finished four down, 171 to the good. Two of their three debutants perished as did a third batsman, Keaton Jennings, who at this level - in fact, at all levels - also remains comparatively wet behind the ears.

At such times, Cook's calming presence has often offered England succour - nigh on 12,000 Test runs amassed without excess, and as if oblivious to the tribulations around him. He just about held South Africa at bay, a workmanlike 82 not out fashioned by the time players left the field for the final time around six o'clock.

South of the Thames, life is supposedly relaxed and informal, especially with a 100th Test for The Oval to celebrate, but not for England, who knew that restraint was expected of them, but who struggled to prosper after Joe Root's marginal decision to bat.

An unbroken stand of 51 between Cook and Ben Stokes as the rain became more frequent brought a different complexion after they had slipped to 120 for 4. Stokes, who had taken offence at the questioning of England's dedication after their Trent Bridge defeat, again playing with utmost deliberation. It was perhaps safest not to mention it.

England's task to put Nottingham behind them was far from straightforward. There was swing and, surprisingly at The Oval, some seam movement on offer for South Africa's attack on a green-tinged pitch. England had cause to be grateful that Vernon Philander had to retreat from the fray for periods of the day with a stomach upset. Once again, he was excellent throughout.

The shot that got Cook to fifty - a rare wide one from Philander which he flashed through gully - was uncharacteristic of a patient innings in which he left well and prospered off his pads. It was his first Test fifty in the first innings for more than a year. His focus, though, will be forward - and the potential for a 31st Test hundred.

He was grateful, on 28, to survive an lbw appeal from Chris Morris, the ball angling in towards leg stump but Ultra Edge spotting a nick on to his pad after South Africa reviewed.

South Africa followed up the wicket of Jennings in the fourth over of the day with three more in the afternoon. Tom Westley looked comfortable enough in making 24 by lunch, but he fell four balls after the resumption, edging an outswinger from Chris Morris to second slip. As with any international newcomer, analysis will immediately begin - and with Westley it will doubtless emphasise his penchant for the leg side - but it was a decent delivery.

John Crawley at Lord's in 1994 was the last time England fielded a debutant No. 3 at home and there were similarities in Westley's game, notably in a fluent manner and a strong leg-side game. A first-class average below 38 was hardly eye-catching, but he had a dapper air at the crease and, at 28, many believe him to be a late developer. England certainly need one.

Philander, who had been limited to four overs with the new ball before lunch, returned in mid-afternoon and removed Joe Root during his second over back. Root was drawn into a work to leg by a slightly back-of-a-length delivery of impeccable line, it left him a fraction and Quinton de Kock changed direction in time to take a fine, one-handed catch to his right.

Dawid Malan, on debut at five, is no stodge: selections like this further underline that England are not about to block out the rest of the summer. He was preferred to Liam Dawson as England sought refuge in an extra batsman, but managed only a single before his 17th delivery proved to be his last, a high-class yorker from Kagiso Rabada, which swung late to hit middle and leg and which left the left-handed Malan falling to the floor as it did so, evidence of a closed-off stance.

The sum of England's morning was 62 in 22.1 overs for the loss of Jennings, who made a duck and who is looking increasingly unlikely to survive his first Test summer. Influential figures, Andy Flower among them, like his character, but increasingly England will be disturbed by his batting average.

In three Tests, Jennings' technique has been well and truly filleted. South Africa are experts at it, especially against someone who they regard as one of their own. He has looked increasingly statuesque; as if afraid every move might be his last. Three debutants at The Oval might not preclude a fourth in Manchester.

Not for the first time this series, he was skilfully worked over by Philander, his footwork tentative and bat searching blindly as if unsure which way the ball was moving. He deflected a delivery into his pads, not too far short of square leg, and then pushed blindly at the next. Philander then got him at third slip as he dangled his bat without conviction.

Jennings' departure paved the way for an Essex alliance between Cook and Westley, Westley heartened no doubt, in his first Test innings, to have the presence at the crease of a county colleague he holds in such high regard.

The Oval is traditionally the ground for England debutants, but that owes much to its regular place in the English calendar as the last Test of the summer. To find three of them, all a little squeamish with nerves, searching for dressing room pegs in only the third Test of the summer, was a sign of England's problems.

Three debutants a few months before the start of an Ashes series is hardly ideal for England. Consolation, though, is easy to find because South Africa caused the same fallout in the last Australian summer. Tough and uncompromising, they are adept at uncovering weaknesses. Westley's first four scoring shots in Test cricket were all boundaries, the first of them a signature shot as he whipped Morne Morkel to the square leg boundary.

He was fortunate to get a thin edge on an lbw appeal from Morkel before taking two more boundaries off the first over from Keshav Maharaj, the left-arm spinner. An aerial drive was too close to short extra cover for comfort; a further boundary off his pads possessed more aplomb.

Neither Morkel nor Rabada were at the top of their game before lunch. Morkel was too short, going for 28 in his first six, while Rabada, despite putting himself through a heavy workload in the nets during his one-Test suspension under the totting up procedure, took a while to slip into gear.

Both stepped it up after lunch. Morkel was particularly impressive during a demanding afternoon spell of fuller length. Cook and Root were forced to tough it out. The former captain survived; his replacement didn't. Root slumped back in a dressing room chair, disconsolate and, like many before him, watched Cook dig England out of a hole.