Not long after his fast bowlers had cleared away the final scraps of England’s second innings on Friday afternoon, Dean Elgar was asked to explain the success South Africa have enjoyed – eight wins in 10 attempts – since his appointment as captain last year. “I always felt that the core of the group has had the basic fundamentals of one day becoming a world-known Test side,” he said.
“I would like to think that what we’ve laid down as a foundation has been pretty true and pretty solid. It hasn’t been fake, it’s been pretty unique, it’s been real. It hasn’t been something that I feel is far-fetched.”
He spoke with complete earnestness. There was no snark, no smirk, absolutely no suggestion he had in his mind anything except the merits of his own team. But his words were also chosen in a very particular context: that of having emphatically bested a side whose new captain and coach are attempting to power a transformation on little more than attitude. A transformation that for all the riotous success of early summer still seems on occasion – and none more than this – an act of theatre, a conjurer’s illusion.
There was no doubt who the magicians had been on this occasion. South Africa’s seam quartet took 18 of England’s 20 wickets and certainly plenty of batters appeared enchanted. Lungi Ngidi took the fewest wickets but was the most economical; the towering Marco Jansen took three of his four wickets by bowling tailenders – demonstrating to England, who seem to prefer to pitch it short on these occasions, the wisdom of aiming at the stumps – and the brilliant Kagiso Rabada took seven wickets including his 250th in Tests and was named player of the match.
But it was Anrich Nortje who produced the moment that defined the Test, a few minutes after noon on Wednesday. The clouds hung pregnant over Lord’s and the air seemed thick with humidity and promise and then, suddenly, had to make room for Jonny Bairstow’s middle stump.
Bairstow has seemed to have the answer to every question this Test summer, but what made this question particularly difficult was that it was travelling at 93mph.
On Friday, Nortje said there was something about his best performances that defies even his own explanation – “when the rhythm is there sometimes it feels a lot slower but the speed gun says something different” – but the fundamentals of his technique are built on the more prosaic foundations of “lots of pain medication” and a great deal of work.
Nortje had not played a first-class game for 14 months, much of it spent battling a persistent hip injury, making his refusal to get carried away by his successful return almost as remarkable as the performance itself. “I wasn’t happy with the start so I tried to rev it up a bit later on,” he said of England’s second innings.
“Fortunately I got the nick and the wicket [of Bairstow], so I got some momentum going. I tried to run with that for as long as possible and that is generally my job, to try and get the energy and momentum on my side.”
South Africa certainly have the energy and momentum on their side as they move to Manchester for Thursday’s second Test. “The next game it might go their way again so you have to start from scratch, focus on what we did well in this game and find the areas where we can still improve,” Nortje said.
Perhaps the one problem for the Proteas’ bowling pack is that they have not left themselves many of those.