Sublime Finn injects life into droopy England

Steven Finn removed Hashim Amla in a magnificent spell Getty Images

It might be exaggerating to suggest England evoked memories of Bert Trautmann, the goalkeeper who played the last 17 minutes of the 1956 FA Cup final despite having sustained a broken neck, or Sam Burgess, who suffered a fractured eye socket and cheekbone in the first tackle of the game but went on to win the Man-of-the-Match award in the 2014 NRL Grand Final. But it is something of an irony that on the first day of the Johannesburg Test, England ended in a relatively healthy position.

A little while after lunch, with South Africa on 117 for 1 and half of England's team looking as green as the outfield, it seemed that this would be the day they allowed their grip on the series to slip.

It was not that they had bowled poorly exactly. It was just that they had failed to fully take advantage of conditions that were so encouraging for seamers that, a couple of balls into his first over, Stuart Broad actually rubbed his hands in glee like a pantomime villain stumbling upon a pot of gold.

But while James Anderson, in particular, was some way below his best - only three deliveries in his first 12 overs would have hit the stumps and, for much of the time, he had the demeanour of a man with severe toothache - this is probably not the day to be critical of him or anyone else in the England side. For, as player after player nipped off the field for a 'comfort break,' it soon became clear that England's insistence that the squad had shrugged off a recent bout of illness was wishful thinking. Suffice it to say, many of them will have spent a good portion of the last couple of days in their bathrooms.

While that may seem more of an inconvenience than a serious impediment, in these conditions - with a hot sun, heavy outfield and relatively large step up to the pitch for bowlers just before the delivery stride - it could make the small percentage difference that separates sides in international sport. Ben Stokes required treatment for cramp and Broad looked as if he should be tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle.

In some ways, England were fortunate. South Africa's batsmen fell, on the whole, to a variety of soft, oddly reckless dismissals on a relatively low-quality day of cricket. They may well rue their failure to exploit England's weakness.

But South Africa are not out of the game. Only once in the previous eight Tests at this ground has a side posted more than 300 in their first innings, and an unbroken eighth-wicket stand of 42 has kept the hosts' heads above water. If the cracks on this surface open, batting last could prove tricky, even against an attack that has not included a spinner. The sense persists that had England bowled a little fuller with the new ball - and both Broad and Anderson were seduced by the bounce in the surface into bowling a little short - they may have caused a great deal more trouble. England's top order may face a sterner examination.

"Both Anderson and Broad have been immaculate over the last year, but there have been times when England seemed overly reliant upon them. It bodes well that Finn is beginning to bowl with the consistency that should make him a fixture in the side for several years"

But to have fought back after an unimpressive first session, to take all but one of the chances offered to them in the field - Stokes missed a fiendishly tough chance at gully offered by Chris Morris on 9 - represented a decent day's work in far from ideal circumstances.

It was noticeable once again that Steven Finn was the most impressive of England's seamers. While he did not quite generate the pace of Stokes - whose quickest delivery was 92.7 mph - his combination of pace, bounce, control and movement troubled the batsmen more than any of his colleagues.

He also claimed one of the key wickets. As England have found to their cost before, removing Hashim Amla once set is like trying to persuade Table Mountain to move a little to its left. But here, forcing a stroke from a full delivery on off stump, Finn found the edge with a terrific ball that shaped away. Perhaps, at his best, Amla's feet might have moved a little more and he may have made contact before the ball had the chance to leave him. But it was a fine delivery.

If the wicket of Faf du Plessis owed something to fortune - the batsmen clipped a short ball off his hip to deep-backward square - it was no more than Finn deserved for all his beautiful deliveries that have beaten the bat or the other times that chances off his bowling have gone to ground in this series.

There is encouragement here for England. Both Anderson and Broad have been immaculate over the last year, but there have been times when England seemed overly reliant upon them. While they could be forgiven a rare off day, it bodes well that Finn - who was preferred to the ailing Broad with the second new ball - is beginning to bowl with the consistency that should make him a fixture in the side for several years.

We knew he generated decent pace and bounce from his first spell in the side. But the ability to shape the ball away from the bat, an ability picked up through hours of working with the Middlesex bowling coach Richard Johnson, brings a new dimension to his bowling and offers England hope for life after Anderson.

This was also a markedly improved performance with the gloves from Jonny Bairstow. While none of the catches he took was especially testing, the team management believe his problems to date have largely been caused by lapses of concentration. So to retain the awareness to hold on to all four offered was admirable. Bairstow was also quick to reach the stumps and gather a sharp throw when completing the run-out of Temba Bavuma especially as, judging by the number of times he was obliged to leave the field of play, he is also among those suffering.

All things considered, England will be delighted they made it through the day without suffering more damage.