outh Africa sprung a surprise by bringing Essex spinner Simon Harmer into their XI to face England here at Old Trafford, then opting to bat first under leaden skies.
Unusually, both captains were happy after the toss. South Africa’s Dean Elgar won it for the second time in as many matches, and opted to bat first on a pitch that looks dry and should see Harmer and spin twin Keshav Maharaj have a big role to play as the game wears on.
But England’s Ben Stokes admitted he wanted to bowl first, with rain overnight and low cloud hanging over Manchester. England have a preference for chasing, but Stokes believes it was the makeup of his seam-heavy attack that made him happy.
“Fantastic bowling conditions,” said Stokes. “The attack we have will show what we’re about today.”
After starting the summer with four wins — each, in different ways, extraordinary — against New Zealand and India, England were humbled by the sheer pace of South Africa’s attack at Lord’s last week.
England announced the one change to their team yesterday, with Ollie Robinson recalled for Matt Potts, who has played all five Tests this summer.
Robinson last played for England in January, in the final Ashes Test in Hobart, but has had a difficult year in which he has spent time on the sidelines due to fitness issues, back spasms, Covid-19 and dental trouble.
“The dedication Ollie’s shown over the last six months is a great sign for English cricket,” said Stokes. “He brings a great skillset and added bounce will suit the conditions here at Old Trafford.”
England’s openers Zak Crawley and Alex Lees may have been relieved that they were not asked to bat first after the tricky match they had at Lord’s. Stokes said that England did not even “contemplate” a change to their batting between Tests.
Harmer has played for Essex since 2017, first as a Kolpak and now as an overseas player, and been a revelation. In 100 first-class innings for the club, he has 354 wickets and has helped them to two County Championships and one Bob Willis Trophy final victory in 2020.
His return breaks up South Africa’s brilliant four-man seam attack, with left-arm beanpole Marco Jansen dropping out. He bowled beautifully at Lord’s and also batted well after being promoted to No6. Harmer can bat, but his presence lengthens South Africa’s tail.
“We’re pretty excited to have Harmy back,” said Elgar. “Marco Jansen did nothing wrong, it’s just horses for courses.”