At Durban, December 26-30, 2015. England won by 241 runs. Toss: South Africa. Test debut: A. D. Hales.
Perhaps the South Africans thought they were still in India, where they had been thumped 3-0 only three weeks earlier. Perhaps England thought they were still in the United Arab Emirates, where they had reeled off six victories in seven matches in the shorter formats after losing the Test series. Perhaps that 2-0 defeat by Pakistan was why,the day before the game, Amla said: "Both teams are looking to start the resurgence. Both teams are probably searching for a bit of hope."
A match robbed of its sharpest arrows - a shoulder strain limited Steyn to 29 overs,while James Anderson was ruled out altogether with a calf problem - changed the perceptions and perspectives of those still standing. In England's case, it allowed Woakes to earn his fifth cap, and gave Broad the choice of ends. For South Africa, unsettlingly, it was deja` vu: Steyn had not bowled after the first innings of the First Test in India because of a groin injury. "India was a wake-up call for a lot of us," he said as Kingsmead's Christmas cracker loomed. "We found we're probably not as good as we thought. The boys have hurt. We're going to go back to being a basic cricket team."
Anderson would have enjoyed a pitch apparently made for bowls rather thanbowling. Indeed, Amla's insertion of Eng-land after he won the toss for only the third time in 13 Tests was less a decision than a concession to indecision. But the surface suited the bloody-mindedness of both Elgar, who scored his fourth century, an innings made up of equal parts steadiness and scrapping, and Compton, who - in the city of his birth - made 85 and 49 on his return to Test cricket after a two-and-a-half-year absence. His father, Richard,watched from the Old Fort Road End, and his uncle, Patrick, reported for his news-paper at the Umgeni End. "I don't want to talk to no Compton," joked South Africa's coach, Russell Domingo, when Patrick asked him a press conference question. The understated off-spin of Ali, meanwhile,claimed seven for 116 - which proved enough to trump Compton, and earn him his first match award in Tests.
By stumps on an opening day which lost most of the final session to unseasonal rain,England had overcome the shock of losing Cook, Hales - their latest opener - and Root with just 49 on the board. They were righted by a stand of 125 between Compton and Taylor, which was ended shortly before the close when Taylor was caught behind off a pumped-up Steyn. But Compton was still there, having faced 179 balls for his unbeaten 63. Next day he would smother, ignore, or occasionally think about taking a run off,another 57 deliveries (and, almost always, change his mind). When he finally bottom-edged a pull off Morkel through to de Villiers - who had been asked nicely to keep wicket again, even while rumours swirled about his future - it was as if all South African supporters had been put out of their misery.Passions boiled over around the tea urn in the commentators' lounge.
"Nick Compton is batting too slowly," mused Herschelle Gibbs, once an entertaining opener for South Africa. "You need to score at least three runs an over." That stirred Geoffrey Boycott: "Herschelle bloody Gibbs! I loved you as a player, but you have about as much brains as a bloody squashed tomato!"Something else must have stirred the South Africans, who took England's last seven wickets for 129 in a total of 303. For the first time since they beat West Indies at home in January 2015, they looked like a team with places to go and things to do - none more than Steyn and Morkel, who claimed eight between them. But, by the close on the second day, hey had reverted to recent type, and shambled to 137 for four. Broad did most of the wrecking, with superb control of line and length. He bowled van Zyl, who offered no stroke, with the second ball of the innings, and quickly added Amla, who had been dropped by Bairstow off Woakes on two. Broad later claimed the prize scalp of de Villiers, for the eighth time in Tests.Du Plessis charged fatally at Ali, but Elgar resumed on 67, went to his century an hour into the third morning, and carried his bat for 118. He contributed 55% of his side's total,the most for South Africa since readmission, passing Gibbs's 54% against India at Port Elizabeth in 2001-02. "India didn't give us a lot of confidence, but personally it did me the world of good," he said. "Sometimes you need that kick up the backside." But South Africa had been dismissed, 89 behind. While Broad had bulldozed four at the top, Ali bamboozled four lower down.
Finn took the last two in the same over. Piedt's off-spin, introduced in the eighth over, removed Cook and Hales, before that man Compton and Root threatened to build England's lead out of sight. But, an hour before the close, Morkel excised Compton by way of an edge down the leg side. Still,England resumed on the fourth day with a lead already 261 runs large. They also knew they would no longer have to deal with Steyn, who had sent down just 23 balls in their second innings before his shoulder forced him off for good. And they knew South Africa's confidence in their fielding would have been shaken by the three catches they dropped,two of them by the stellar de Villiers. Taylor helped Root add 73 for the fourth wicket, as Root passed 50 for the 13th time in Tests in 2015 to equal the world record.
But it was Bairstow's purposeful 79 off 76 balls that lifted England to their eventual lead of 415. Piedt's five for 153, a labour of something like love, made him the first South African off-spinner to take five or more in a Test innings at Kings mead since Hugh Tayfield managed eight for 69 against Peter May's England in 1956-57.South Africa rushed to 53 without loss in the 11th over, only to limp to the close on 136 for four. When Elgar was third out, edging Finn to Root at second slip after tea, he stood for a moment, before perhaps realising he could finally take a break: until then, he had been on the field for all 1,406 minutes of the match. The bristling, bustling Finn also dealt with Amla and du Plessis, which meant only de Villiers could save South Africa on the last day.But, with the third ball of the morning, Ali - coming round the wicket - pitched a delivery on leg. It stayed low and rapped de Villiers, playing fatally back, on the pads. Aleem Dar gave him out and, after the inevitable review, technology suggested the ball had pitched in line and would have dealt leg stump a glancing blow. Duminy excepted,the rest collapsed in a heap, extending South Africa's slump from the previous evening to seven for 38 inside 25 overs as England surged to a comprehensive victory, with four for Finn and three for Ali, including Bavuma for a duck - England's first Test stumping for hree years. It was their sixth win in 16 Tests in Durban, to go with a lone defeat, way back in 1927-28.The start of the Second Test at Cape Town was just three days away, but Cook - having drawn level with Mike Brearley on 18 victories as captain - couldn't make out Table Mountain for the glow of victory. "You see the guys training, from one to 17 in this squad,and think: 'There are good times ahead.'"
Man of the Match:M. M. Al
Telford Vice is a freelance cricket writer in South Africa