In sport, there are defeats, embarrassments and demolition jobs. The latter usually coincides with complete obliteration of the opposition and a solid dose of mental disintegration. Australia’s 281-run victory over South Africa was the epitome of a demolition job. Between Mitchell Johnson’s hot streak and allowing Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith to set a record partnership, the Proteas wilted to a shadow of their number one status.
The Australians not only scaled the fortress of Centurion: they conquered it, burnt it to the ground and still had time to roast marshmallows over the simmering embers. As far as defeats over the last five years go, there has not been a worse hammering.
Slow starts are nothing new for South Africa. They have struggled to hit the ground running since they toppled England from the number one ranking in 2012. Every single time, either a group effort of brilliance or a stand-out individual performance has rescued them. The only difference is that, in the last two years, they have never been up against the pantomime villain-like character like Johnson. Australia’s left-arm pace sensation is in the form of his life and as coach Russell Domingo said after the obliteration on day two, there is nothing that can prepare you for that kind of bowling at that kind of intensity, even if you’ve seen it before.
Through awkward bounce and brutal pace, Johnson ripped the heart out of the South African batting twice. Although he had some luck go his way, the Proteas were rattled right from the get-go. After winning the toss and choosing to bowl, the hosts managed to make inroads, claiming four cheap wickets which made the decision at the toss look justified. Then something strange happened. Shaun Marsh – a player who could not buy a run during an A-team tour here last year – and Steve Smith completely took the game away from South Africa. Although Marsh looked unsettled early on, he was allowed to leave far too many deliveries, as was his partner, and as the scoreboard continued to drift along, so did South Africa’s ferocious start. Don’t take anything away from the pair, but South Africa looked like there was a lack of intensity and the lack of a real frontline spinner exploited a known weakness.
To go from 98-4 to 397 all out was a charitable gift to Australia and exactly what the bowling attack needed to get stuck in. The bowling has been the biggest talking point in the lead-up to the series and you’d be hard pressed to deny that there is a better bowler than Johnson at the moment. There is nobody else who is bowling at that kind of pace, with that kind of accuracy and that consistently. Adjusting, adapting, sucking up the fear of being hit and simply being patient is the key in playing him. AB de Villiers showed that it could be done. Johnson is surely imposing, but he is not without fault. South Africa have seen this menacing side of him before and although it’s been cranked up a notch, there was no excuse to look so out of their depth. Even Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis showed glimpses of being able to adjust and wait out the storm, until a lapse in concentration led to their undoing. The failure from the openers in Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen also impacted on how the lower order approached the game. Smith was perhaps unlucky in two cases, but Petersen’s approach has been questionable. It’s been over a year since he has managed to score a hundred in a Test and since that hundred, he averages just 23.92 in 15 innings with just 335 runs in total. For an opener, that’s not good enough. His fellow opener, Smith, has scored 664 runs at an average of 47.42 in the same time period.
Another concern is JP Duminy. Although his approach was mostly tentative and he offers a handy option with the ball, Duminy averages 16.75 in his last eight innings. It was always known that there are weak links in the set-up, but never before have those been so blatantly exposed.
Ryan McLaren’s return to Test cricket was completely unmemorable and his impact with the ball offered precious little compared to what is not in the attack already. Save for his bravery after being felled by a Johnson bouncer, it’s a Test he would rather forget. In hindsight, although Parnell is far less experienced, his X-factor might have been handy at Centurion. With real pace and a left-arm option to help create rough, Parnell is a left-field choice that might just come off and wouldn’t be the worst call for the second Test in PE.
Similarly, those who are under pressure either need to respond with two fingers up or the selectors need to be brave and cut off the limb that ails them and start the rebuilding process. This tour could be the wake-up call that’s needed for South Africa to finally shift out of their conservative comfort zone.
South Africa’s record at St. George’s is dubious. Out of the 24 games they have played there, they’ve won nine, lost 11 and drawn four, but as the record showed at Centurion, stats will mean very little in this series. It’s about playing in the moment and playing the moment, something Australia did far better in every single department in the first Test.
There are three days of preparation before the second Test begins in Port Elizabeth. Bad weather has settled in over the Eastern Cape, which might hamper the approach from both sides and add some juice to what is usually a slow pitch.
For South Africa, bouncing back has become part of their DNA. But they now have to not only bounce back from the loss, but also from the possible psychological advantage that Johnson might have gained over them. This is not a weak team; they have shown as much on previous occasions – but this is their toughest Test to date.
Graeme Smith denied that there was any sort of mental scarring, but it’s hard to believe they aren’t a little spooked. Only time will tell how quickly those ghosts can be exorcised.
Australia 397 (Marsh 148, Smith 100, Steyn 4-78) and 290 for 4 dec (Warner 115, Doolan 89) beat South Africa 206 (de Villiers 91, Johnson 7-68) and 200 (de Villiers 48, Johnson 5-59) by 281 runs. DM
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