JThe Lord’s clock had already passed one o’clock by the time Anrich Nortje turned to throw the last ball of the morning, frowning his game face as he glanced at Ben Stokes: an expression truly terrifying, the face of a man with a deep and intractable sense of injustice, which can also – did we mention that? – 97 mph bowl with punches to the chest.
Nortje is truly a wonderful fast bowler. Here, his morning was split between two short periods, one on each side. He is not tall, but has formidable whipping strength, leaps from his back foot in a thrilling catapult motion, chest on but still smooth and easy in his movements.
It’s been a steady journey up to this point, a career that’s become a multi-franchise, all-format supernova as it nears its peak. He made his debut for Eastern Province against Namibia eight years ago. His first two professional cricket wickets both belonged to an opener called Wayne Raw, who himself resembles the title character in a Martin Amis novel about 1980s Afrikaner fast bowlers Anrich Nortje at Wayne Raw in Windhoek. Imagine how hot it was. Imagine the amount of meat they ate for lunch.
Nortje, now 28, played in college, was always quick and has now become an extremely skilled bowler. Forty minutes earlier he had produced a nice little miniature, slamming Jonny Bairstow’s center stump off the ground with a 93mph in-ducker, the perfect execution of the perfect delivery, perfectly suited to his opponent’s weakness , with the perfect cinematic end point. Nortje even produced the perfect celebration, dropping to his knees and pumping his right arm like a man very carefully puncturing a waterbed with a bread knife.
And how he had Stokes in his sights; and not just Stokes, but the day, the vibe, the vibe around this thing. England were 100 for four at the time and moving almost four years over, ready for one of those crossroads moments. Was it good? Was it good in the new way of being good, good energy, good vibes, good forward movement? Which direction would this thing go?
Stokes had struck like he had all summer, like a man wearing shoes three sizes too small, jumping out of his crease, spinning on his heels, sending the ball to defenders. Kagiso Rabada had played beautifully with the new ball. He came back 20 minutes before lunch and you felt it was the game here, the time to defend with aggression, to defend as a form of attack, basically, to defend. Ben. Please.
Just a thought. At the other end, Ollie Pope had just thrown fifty 69 balls lively, fluid and pleasant. Stokes drove Marco Jansen halfway for four times, a memory of how he struck at his best, a shot that relied on stillness, letting the ball enter the arc of his wrists and lay there simply pressing with an easy, brutal elegance.
Would he have left that ball, or would he have played it softer, more carefully if he hadn’t also cut a point earlier in the over, if he hadn’t gasped on 20 balls out of 29? Probably not. And it was a nice piece of bowling from Nortje, straightening up, spinning Stokes and taking a thick edge on the third slide.
With that, the balance of power, risk and reward, seemed to settle decisively in one direction. In the build-up to this game, there had been fun and convoluted banter about exactly who, hosts or tourists, was more obsessed with England’s ‘brave’ new approach. They keep talking about it. Well, they keep talking about telling us about it. Who, exactly, is playing wit who here? Who can live without rent in whose head? Is this some kind of summer house swap?
With that in mind, it will be urgent to conclude that with that last ball before lunch, by reducing England to 116 for six on a rain-shattered first day, South Africa have blown a huge hole in their this rather indecisive new era, the sloganeering, the brilliant race continues.
And yet, of course, no one ever claimed that it would work every time. Stokes has, by many orthodox measures, beaten horribly this summer. England have won every game. He has an average of 40. Also, the other point here is that England were basically out-bazzed that first morning, met with greater force, greater controlled aggression.
Three of Nortje’s first six balls went borderline. At lunch, he had numbers of 6-37-2. His first ball of the afternoon was at 93 mph. Shortly after, he beat Ben Foakes to finish with three for 43 and Stuart Broad already at the wicket looking under his helmet like a man being asked to fight off a cloud of pterodactyls with a wand. It was not a victory for consistency or for playing percentages.
Perhaps the only real lesson from day one at Lord’s was that South Africa have a breathtakingly paced, almost unnecessarily thin attack. Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen take their wickets at 20, Rabada at 22. It’s generational stuff, all the fine lines, menace and variation: a perfect quartet of Test pace for a nation that really isn’t going to play too many Tests from here.