South Africa quicks Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje did the damage as England slumped to 116/6 before heavy rain forced an early end to the opening day of the first Test at Lord’s on Wednesday.
Rabada, passed fit following an ankle injury, removed openers Alex Lees and Zak Crawley early on during a return of 2-36 in 12 overs.
And Nortje, one of eight South Africans playing their first Test in England, grabbed three wickets, including the scalp of home captain Ben Stokes.
Only Ollie Pope, with an unbeaten 61, offered prolonged resistance before rain arrived half an hour after lunch.
Following weeks of searing temperatures in England, Wednesday’s bad weather meant only 32 overs were possible before play was halted early in the second session, by which time South Africa had still ripped through the top order.
“There was a bit in the wicket today and I think we got rewards for putting the ball in the right areas,” said the 27-year-old Rabada, now in his 53rd Test.
England’s plight would have been considerably worse but for Pope.
“I thought he was fantastic today. Our mantra of trying to put the opposition under pressure, he did that brilliantly,” said assistant coach Paul Collingwood.
The former England all-rounder insisted the team’s aggressive batting approach was “not going to change”.
“The one thing when you are on wickets with lots of assistance, you don’t want the bowler to think he can put it in the same area and get results,” he added.
England came into the game with a perfect record of four wins from as many Tests under their new leadership pairing of Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum.
All of those victories had been achieved by chasing down targets in the fourth innings, something that cannot happen in this match after South Africa captain Dean Elgar won the toss and fielded on a green-tinged pitch under overcast skies.
Elgar’s doubts over whether England could maintain their aggressive approach with the bat against an attack that has helped South Africa climb to the top of the World Test Championship table were soon justified.
Spearhead fast bowler Rabada had left-hander Lees caught behind for five and removed struggling fellow opener Crawley for nine after he nicked a ball that nipped away low to Aiden Markram at second slip.
Joe Root was powerless to stop the rot, with the star batsman lbw for eight to a huge inswinger from towering left-arm paceman Marco Jansen, a decision upheld after the former England captain’s review.
Jonny Bairstow had made 106 and an unbeaten 114 during England’s most recent Test, a seven-wicket win over India at Edgbaston last month.
But he was bowled for a five-ball duck by Nortje as he tried to drive on the up, with England slumping to 55-4.
Pope completed a 69-ball fifty but, with the very last delivery of the session, Nortje squared up Stokes to have the all-rounder caught in the slips for 20, leaving England on 100-5 at the interval.
That became 116-6 when wicketkeeper Ben Foakes played on to express quick Nortje, who topped speeds of over 93 mph.
Pope was now batting with the tail, but rain spared England from further punishment at the hands of the Proteas pace attack, with only Lungi Ngidi yet to take a wicket.
Rabada, reflecting on the styles of South Africa’s four quicks, said: “I think we’ve got some pace, we’ve got bounce, we’ve got guys who can swing it, guys who can bowl quick bumpers, so in terms of a pace attack I think we have all the ingredients to be a formidable one.”
NOTE: If the live scoring below does not display, click HERE
Zak Crawley, Alex Lees, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes (captain), Ben Foakes (wkt), Matthew Potts, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach, James Anderson
Dean Elgar (captain), Sarel Erwee, Keegan Petersen, Aiden Markram, Rassie van der Dussen, Kyle Verrreynne (wkt), Marco Jansen, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi
Umpires: Nitin Menon (IND), Richard Illingworth (ENG)
TV umpire: Chris Gaffaney (NZL)
Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle (SRI)