Australia’s batting has had its weak links for a while now, and these were exposed in Port Elizabeth when South Africa managed a memorable comeback to square the series 1-1. The final Test at Newlands is shaping up to be one heck of a contest. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
It’s been almost two months since Australia’s batsmen last managed to score over 400 runs and almost two months since they pulled together as a team to notch up a hefty total. It happened during the second Ashes Test in Adelaide, when a limp English attack could only roll their eyes as Chris Rogers, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris and even George Bailey combined for a mammoth total.
Since then, Australia have played five Tests and in four of those Tests, they have found themselves five wickets down in their first innings without having 150 runs on the board. In Centurion, they were four down without 100 on the board – and were it not for the unlikely heroes Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith, the trend might have repeated itself there too.
There is a distinctly soft underbelly in the Australian batting line-up, and without luck and awful bowling, it’s quite easily exposed. Yes, Chris Rogers is from the old school of digging in and David Warner epitomises the new school revolution of T20 to Tests cross over, but when the right bowlers show up, Australia falls down, even on a flat deck.
That’s the thing that will benefit South Africa’s psyche most heading into the third and final Test at Newlands. They have shown that they are much tougher mentally than England, and one good Test from Mitchell Johnson isn’t enough to scare them into disarray. They’ve shown that, on flat decks, they can take 20 wickets. Heck, on flat decks they can take ten wickets in less than day with a bowler and a frontline spinner short. This was not a one-off feat. Although they might have been left red-faced by the embarrassing defeat at Centurion, they’re now dusting their shoulders and bellowing a resounding: ‘Bring it!’
A massive positive for South Africa is that Dale Steyn found his pace and Morne Morkel found his mojo, all while Vernon ‘Mr Line and Length’ Philander supported his teammates perfectly. On a bad day, Steyn can still walk into almost any Test team in the world. On a good day, shrines are erected in his name and purveyors of fine fast bowling declare a day of prayer. Once the ball started to reverse in PE, they looked like a number one team once more, and Steyn was instrumental in setting it all up.
Owing to injury, Steyn had not played much cricket since India toured South Africa last year. It showed in the first Test, but the world’s number-one ranked fast bowler slowly but surely crawled out of his cocoon as the second Test progressed. One spell let loose the reverse-swinging, fire-breathing dragon in Steyn.
“His anger goes from very angry to extremely angry when he’s bowling,” Graeme Smith joked after his pace ace bagged four scalps on the fourth day.
“It’s nice to know that you have somebody like that in the team. There are always high expectations of him after the performances he’s had in his career. If he’s not taking five-fors or knocking people over, people start asking questions. But it’s great to see that when the game is on the line, he can respond and it’s exciting to have someone like that, as a captain.”
As Mitchell Johnson showed in Centurion and Steyn showed in PE, one player can swing a session, but it’s only when a team comes together as a unit that mesmerising victories happen. However, it doesn’t go without raising a few eyebrows. Australia’s David Warner has popped up questioning South Africa’s ability to generate so much reverse swing and whether the scuffing tactics employed by the hosts were actually all above board.
“I think it comes down to the umpires warning both teams not to throw the ball into the wicket, which you generally try and do,” Warner told Sky Sports Radio. “They did it better than we did, or more obviously than we did. At the end of the day it comes down to who can do that the best and work on the ball.
“We were actually questioning whether or not AB de Villiers would get the ball in his hand and with his glove wipe the rough side every ball. That’s another thing we have to try and bring up with the umpires.”
Reverse swing there might have been, but Australia’s batsmen are not immune to accusations of ineptitude. They have managed to get away with it for some time, but when the screws were turned they were exposed.
Australia will have a few more worries than the hosts. Of particular concern for Australia should be their captain. Michael Clarke has now passed 30 just twice in his last 18 innings, but at least he has managed a hundred every time he passed the 30-run mark. At Centurion, when things were looking to be going the way of the Ashes scorecards, he dropped himself down the order and sent in Shaun Marsh to do the hard work for him at number four. That order remained the same in Port Elizabeth and the result remained the same, too.
He has gone 11 innings without a score over 24, averaging just 17.88 in that time period, and has looked particularly confused over the whereabouts of his off stump. The last time Clarke visited Newlands he scored a hundred in the same game Australia were skittled out for 47 in their second innings. He has been through lean patches before and the skipper believes in the law of averages. He responded to criticism with two simple words: “I’m due.”
Due or not, the Newlands Test is shaping up to be one of the most important matches of the next 12 months for South Africa. DM
Photo: Australia’s David Warner runs between wickets during the second day of the second cricket test match against South Africa in Port Elizabeth, February 21, 2014. REUTERS/Rogan Ward
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