EVEN by England’s standards, this was a collapse of epic and disastrous proportions.
Joe Root’s team contrived to lose seven wickets for 39 runs and now require something miraculous to avoid defeat in the First Test.
The much-trumpeted plan of Root and new head coach Chris Silverwood to re-boot England’s Test fortunes with slow, patient batting is turning into one big raspberry.
Sure, the pitch was tricky and South Africa have a couple of fine quick bowlers. But this was another abject surrender and England’s first innings lasted just 53.2 overs.
There are serious worries about the capabilities and mindset of several England batsmen – with Dom Sibley, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler top of the list.
Don’t forget, it is South Africa who have been in chaos recently with sackings and suspensions and the old guard of Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis being summoned to try to rescue the team.
Really, we need the late, great Bob Willis to deliver the full force of his verdict on this performance.
The England players were wearing black armbands on day one in tribute to Willis and he would not have spared them yesterday.
England plummeted from 142-3 to 181 all out and, by the close of a day of 15 wickets, were 175 runs behind.
The rapid demise meant the bowlers, already debilitated by illness and the heat, were operating again less than five hours after hoping to put their feet up for a day and a half.
They did drag things back a little in the final 20 overs by taking four wickets. But, with the pitch becoming more difficult, a Proteas win is big favourite.
Sibley’s struggles at the top of the order are a big concern and, truth is, he is yet to look convincing in any of his four Test innings.
Bairstow is playing here because of Ollie Pope’s illness and his stumps were shattered by his sixth delivery, to which Bairstow went back instead of forward. He is bowled far too often.
And Buttler’s record is one century (in a losing cause) in 38 Tests. For all his brilliance as a white ball destroyer, that is an unacceptable record.
England collapses are so familiar that they barely raise an eyebrow. But, once more, we have seen a shortage of skill and nous.
People will rightly point to the way county cricket has been pushed to the margins of the summer, meaning matches are often played on green seamers or tied old dust bowls.
That is scant preparation for facing Kagiso Rabada or, for that matter, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Tim Southee.
Vernon Philander finished with remarkable figures of 14.2-8-16-4 by doing little more funky than landing the ball on a length with a bit of wobble.
Rabada was hostile early on, then wayward before bolstering his figures to 3-68 with a couple of late wickets.
Rory Burns was given out caught behind first ball off Rabada but a review showed his bat hit his pad, not the ball. But then he really was held by the wicketkeeper to his first delivery from Philander.
Sibley gloved a ball from Rabada that bounced. He was given not out but South Africa reviewed, by which time Sibley was already walking off.
This was a torrid period. The new ball was bouncing steeply and Root was struck on the helmet by Rabada. The ball flew over the slips to the boundary.
Joe Denly was spilled on nought by debutant Rassie van der Dussen at slip and took 28 balls to score his first single.
But Denly stuck around, playing the occasional belligerent pull shot and elegant cover drive.
Root appeared to be trying to guide Philander to third man when he gave Quinton de Kock another catch. This is becoming an annoyingly regular mode of dismissal for Root.
Denly and Ben Stokes then put on 72 for the fourth wicket and England were seizing command.
Denly reached his fifth half-century in his last nine Test innings and Stokes’ contribution included two slog-swept sixes off successive balls from spinner Keshav Maharaj.
But the match was turned on its head when Denly inside-edged, a flat-footed Bairstow was bowled and Stokes edged as he wafted.
Sam Curran turned Rabada to short leg, Buttler became de Kock’s sixth catch, Stuart Broad fended a short ball to gully and Jofra Archer was bowled.
Earlier, Broad finished with 4-58 – the same as Curran – in South Africa’s first innings.
Broad took another wicket in the evening session along with James Anderson and Archer (two) as the South African batsmen tried to thrash their way to a big lead.
Archer was fortunate not to be banished from the attack for two late beamers to nightwatchman Anrich Nortje – much to the Proteas’ anger.
The England medical bulletin yesterday read Ollie Pope, Chris Woakes, Jack Leach and Mark Wood all confined to the team hotel with sickness.
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