Dean Elgar was strangled down the leg-side with a loosener dangled well wide off the batsman’s hips and shaping further away from him.
Meanwhile, Quinton de Kock and Rassie van der Dussen – one left-handed, the other right – nicked perfectly pitched deliveries on a fourth stump channel to the wicket-keeper, neither batsmen completely sure about going back or moving forward.
The first bowler ended the day with figures of 20-4-69-1. Not impressive. Not unimpressive. But again, not the kind that catches your eye either.
The second — on paper at least the more Test match bowler — finished with 19-5-57-4. Downright impressive, if you factor in the manner of the aforementioned two dismissals — a perfect concoction of accepted fast bowling nuances aced to the T to force errors from the batsmen.
One of these two bowlers is playing his 150th Test match and is the highest wicket-taker in Test cricket history. Surely, the second? Surely.
Unfortunately not. The second has played all of 14 Test matches and is perhaps more admired for his other cricketing skills.
Only 10 fast bowlers in the history of Test cricket have played over a 100 Test matches. None of them comes close to James Anderson, who on Boxing Day at Supersport Park in Centurion, started his 150th Test match. The 37-year old Lancashire pacer has 576 Test wickets in his 16-year Test career at an average of 27.01.
The sheer tonnage of those numbers make Anderson an irreplaceable commodity; one of those generational players who will, without a grain of doubt, leave a gaping void when he eventually does hang up his boots.
Replacing Anderson is unthinkable, even more so if the one you have in mind is the boyish Sam Curran. C’mon, this other lad once barked at Mitchell Johnson for heaven’s sake. If Curran played in the 2013 Ashes, he might well have been the only England player to get a genuine smile, maybe even a friendly pat on the cheeks, from the fiery Johnson.
If Curran is cute, Anderson is fierce. If Curran is rosy. Anderson is red and brute. If Curran is whipped cream, Anderson is the crust. Ok you get it.
At Supersport Park on Thursday, though, the young left-arm pacer did a lot of what James Anderson is known to do on his big-ticket days – hitting the in-between length, finding swing both ways through the day, beating batsmen on either edge and picking up big wickets.
Steaming in as first-change, Curran had Markram throwing his wicket away with a hard push to the leg-side off his fourth delivery. Put that down to a fleeting moment of fortune, yet the remaining three scalps the Surrey all-rounder managed had class written all over it.
Debutant Rassie van der Dussen was greeted with an inswinger curving back into him but without further ado, the next delivery held its line and forced an outside edge to the cordon.
When Dwaine Pretorius and Quinton de Kock put up a counter-attacking stand, Curran was recalled to the attack and once again he kept his line and length impeccable, mixing up his incoming ball with the one that straightens off the deck. Pretorius, all resilience and grit, was caught in no man’s land as he nicked one to the keeper in a dismissal eerily similar to the one that devoured the other debutant.
Curran was required yet again to find the breakthrough as de Kock found another lower-order fighter in Vernon Philander. The southpaw, racing to a rapid hundred, was caught edging off one that swung away ever so slightly. Once again, it took Curran just five balls in his new spell to get into rhythm.
A feature of Curran’s bowling on day one of the Boxing Day Test was his ability to steam in and hit the perfect line and length very early in a spell. All of his four dismissals came off an in-between length which he kept hitting often in the day.
All Curran's wickets today were caught behind the wicket with the batsman pushing forward. He kept finding that awkward, in-between length which his pitch map clearly demonstrates #SAvENG pic.twitter.com/cRRgHXnw1f
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) December 26, 2019
It isn’t a new phenomenon either for Curran. The left-arm pacer, who had outshone Anderson in the first warm-up match against the Invitation XI, picked up the wickets of the openers in that game.
In his Edgbaston haul against India – the 4/77 in the first innings last year – too Curran had showcased a penchant to remove the cream of the batting line-up, then dismissing all of India’s top three batsmen. At Lord’s against Ireland – where he dismissed both openers – and at Hamilton when he dismissed the New Zealand opener after taking the new ball, Curran has repeatedly revealed the so-called knack he has with the red ball in hand. While his batting skills from no. 8 – the series against India in England and the knock in Sri Lanka glaring examples – has garnered more attention, his bowling has been right on the money.
35.38% of his Test wickets are that of batsmen in the top three of the batting line-up. The corresponding number for James Anderson is not too far away at 37.67%. A genuine swing bowler, Curran has no leeway to squeeze past 576 and 474 Test wickets respectively to take the new red cherry. But even in his restricted role as first-change fast bowler, the youngster has shone through.
There might be questions surrounding his abilities on less conducive wickets in less helpful conditions — the disastrous tour of the Caribbean Islands last year presenting a good evidence in this direction. But even at 37, Anderson continues to invite such criticism. At 21, Curran seems pretty mature and importantly, extremely skillful as his wickets today showed.
It might be too early to call it baton passing, but if cute and brute ever appeared as rhyming as their pronounciations, it was on day one at Centurion. An eventual transition from Anderson to Curran just does not seem an absurd idea after this absorbing spell of pace bowling.