England hounded out South Africa for just 151 on day one of the second Test, before an unusually stoic Zak Crawley helped them finish in a strong position at Emirates Old Trafford.
Despite skittling England cheaply twice in their innings victory at Lord’s, visiting captain Dean Elgar spurned the chance to send them in on a murky morning in Manchester.
The Proteas paid the price for that decision, knocked over inside 54 overs as James Anderson and Stuart Broad took three wickets apiece in helpful conditions.
England suffered top-order setbacks of their own, but the under-pressure Crawley, whose place has come under increasing scrutiny over the summer, played against type to help his side to reach stumps just 40 behind on 111-3.
Subverting his reputation as a dasher, he eked out 17 not out from 77 balls, happily put in the shade by Jonny Bairstow’s sparkier unbeaten 38, to strengthen England’s grip.
Crawley offered little for the highlights reel but, with a game, a series and perhaps a career up for grabs, his mere survival was an important factor.
Elgar’s miscalculation at the toss allowed Anderson the chance to set the tone on the occasion of his 100th appearance on home soil – the first Test cricketer to reach the landmark – and he obliged with an early breakthrough.
Sarel Erwee was beaten several times in a skittish start and fell for three when Anderson drew one back in, well caught by Ben Foakes off the inside edge. At the other end, Ben Stokes broke with convention by handing the returning Ollie Robinson the new ball, demoting Broad from his usual duties.
The Sussex seamer hit a decent rhythm on his first outing in seven months and was probably underserved by figures of one for 48 from 14 overs. Yet he only had himself to blame for drawing a blank in his first spell, a front-foot no-ball scrubbing Ollie Pope’s excellent short-leg catch from the records.
Elgar was the man reprieved, but not for long as Broad celebrated his belated introduction by snagging the captain’s outside edge for 12. Broad’s consistently attacking lengths brought him a couple of lbw appeals before another dismissal, Keegan Petersen nicking to Joe Root.
Stokes turned a promising session into a dominant one with a double strike before lunch, Aiden Markram top-edging a short ball and Rassie van der Dussen lbw on a close call.
Batting conditions improved after lunch but, at 77 for five, considerable ground had already been lost. A refreshed Anderson kept them pinned down at the beginning of the afternoon session, trapping Simon Harmer and Keshav Maharaj lbw with successive deliveries.
A buoyant crowd sniffed the chance of a hat-trick but were disappointed when his next delivery snaked down leg. That was the start of a frustrating sequence for England, who reverted to short balls against the tail-end pair of Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje. With boundary catchers instead of slips, the trail went cold in a stand of 35, ending when Robinson picked up the baton after tea and had the latter leg before.
Rabada top-scored with 36 before turning Jack Leach’s tempter to slip, instantly shifting the spotlight back on to the home side.
Crawley’s place at the top of the order has attracted most attention, but his partner, Alex Lees, is building an increasingly dubious body of work. Nine Tests into his international career, the left-hander lacks a major score and a defensible average, worsening both situations when he was caught behind for four pushing at Lungi Ngidi.
Pope made a breezy 23, including back-to-back fours chopped to third man off Nortje, who was busy fashioning his riposte in the form of a 90mph rocket. Feeling for contact to a ball that zipped through the surface and nipped in off the seam, Pope dragged down his off stump.
Despite their own slim total, South Africa were on the front foot, bristling with intent as they placed Root in the crosshairs. After two single-figure scores at Lord’s, he added another failure when he edged Rabada on nine. Erwee completed the dismissal in the cordon, finally closing his hands around the chance after four separate juggles.
The heat was on, but Crawley was standing up to it. Gone were the flowing drives, along with the edges that often follow. Instead he was leaving well, playing safe and protecting his wicket.
Bairstow, who has been in superb form in 2022, allowed himself more leeway as he trusted his attacking instincts and scored at a lively rate. As the pair left the field, partnership intact, South Africa’s prospects were dwindling fast.