It could have gone a lot worse for South Africa on the opening day of the Boxing Day Test against England. After being stuck in to bat, Dean Elgar earned the dishonour of a Golden Duck, being dismissed on the first ball of the match.
That grim ordeal continued for pretty much all of the top order batsmen. Not one of the top five managed to score 40 or more. And England didn’t even bowl all that well.
With a bug sweeping through the camp and the tourists seemingly still adjusting to the altitude, the Proteas got out of jail and Quinton de Kock was the warden with the keys. The wicketkeeper-batsman steadied the ship in the latter stages of the innings, falling five runs short of a century.
South Africa ended the day on 277 for nine, a score that looks somewhat respectable now.
The woes of the top order aren’t anything new, though. The Proteas wilted in India recently, but those struggles have been fairly consistent over the last two years.
The graphic below shows the total runs scored by South Africa’s top order (one to six) in every Test since 2 January 2017. Save for the fodder of dismal opposition in Bangladesh, the Proteas have hardly blossomed.
Total runs scored in each Test by South Africa’s top order since 2017
It’s even more agonising when isolating the team’s efforts for all their first innings attempts over the same time period. The graphic shows the total runs scored by the top order, in their first innings – when they’ve batted first and second.
Converting starts has been a serious problem for the batsmen. Since the start of 2018, South Africa’s top order batsmen have scored just eight centuries. They scored 12 in the year prior to that.
Centuries and half-centuries in Tests by all teams: 2017-2019
Counting only teams who have played more than ten Tests.
Centuries and half-centuries in Tests by all teams: 2018-2019
But there might be one single glimmer of hope for the Proteas. Grim as their numbers are, England haven’t been in red hot form either. The top order struggled in New Zealand recently and since the start of 2018, England’s top order averaged just 30.25. South Africa’s top order – that rueful outing in India included – averaged 29.73.
South Africa’s spearheads will know how to exploit the conditions far better than the visitors. And De Kock said at the close of play on day one that he reckons anything over 300 will be a good effort on the pitch.