Not since 2011 had England managed to bat through the morning session of Day 1 of a Test without losing a wicket. Dominic Sibley and Zak Crawley helped them break that unfancy streak on Thursday (January 16), on a pitch that didn't offer much assistance to the pacers. Vernon Philander caused whatever little trouble he could with a bit of movement, Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje bent their backs and bowled with pace, but nothing really to put the batsmen in discomfort. And even worse it was for Dane Paterson, the medium pacer with his limited skills, making his Test debut.
The day didn't really start on a surprising note with Faf du Plessis losing the toss and being asked to field. England too made a change to their XI, with Mark Wood coming in for James Anderson. What was surprising, however, was the slow nature of the surface at St. George's Park, which ensured that the morning session wasn't enterprising, with neither ample opportunities coming for the bowlers to pick wickets or the batsmen to score runs. Crawley, in particular, struggled to play the patience game and tried to break the monotony with a couple of uncalled for hoicks, but without any success. The longer they waited, the more loose balls they got to latch on to and put away for boundaries, and they eventually went to Lunch on 61 for no loss.
Till then, Keshav Maharaj had bowled only three overs. By the end of the 80th over - when the second new ball was taken - he had completed 30. That du Plessis had to rely on his fingerspinner so heavily at a time when he had four frontline pacers at his disposal was enough indication of how the pitch played. The slow left-armer just had one wicket to his credit by the end of a hard day's work, which was about operating almost non-stop for a four-hour period on a sunny, breezeless afternoon. However, it isn't a reflection of how much he troubled the batsmen, especially Joe Root and Joe Denly, both of whom largely struggled against him through their combined stay of 146 balls at the crease, which yielded only 52 runs. That he even got the only wicket that he did was also largely due to Quinton de Kock, who convinced his captain to take a review for a legbefore appeal against Denly that was turned down by the umpire.
For all the hard yards the bowlers put in on a pitch that didn't reward them amply, it was also the plan laid out by du Plessis that brought about England's slide. Soon after Lunch, a leg side trap was set for the batsmen and they were given a bait to clip delivery off the middle and leg stump line. The ploy worked with Sibley falling soon after Lunch, and Crawley giving into it almost 45 minutes before Tea.
In between the two dismissals, Denly was offered a life when he was batting on 1, with Dean Elgar dropping a catch at cover. However, the English No. 3 continued to struggle through the course of his 100-ball stay before eventually falling to Maharaj. Root's innings was slightly less scratchy and just as he seemed to be settling in, he was undone by a Rabada delivery that kept low and shattered the stumps. After a 70-run opening stand, the visitors were reduced to 148 for 4 in a slow-moving phase of 34 overs.
However, Ollie Pope and Ben Stokes steadied the innings slightly late in the day. Both had their share of edges and mistimed shots, but ensured they didn't give in to South Africa's plans. And even when they didn't, en route their unbeaten 76-run partnership, du Plessis ensured he wasn't running out of plans. His decision to open the attack with Paterson may be questionable, but the South African skipper largely remained impressive with his proactive field changes and bowling plans. The persistence and the accuracy of his bowlers added well to it, but England still went to stumps on 224 for 4, on a day when they struggled to take control of the proceedings.