Australia in SA
Biff’s plan that ... nearly worked
Graeme Smith (Gallo Images)
Centurion - There is a particularly infamous instance of a
Test captain spurning the chance to get immediate runs on the board and his
“bowl first” decision under a dazzling blue sky then failing in spectacular
In the first Ashes Test of 2002/03 at the Gabba in Brisbane,
England’s Nasser Hussain chose the latter option after calling correctly
against an Australian side in the midst of a heyday period.
He was motivated, legend has it, by the observation of some
team-mates that a practice strip on the morning of day one was showing
promising signs of liveliness and that perhaps the Test pitch would thus follow
suit in the first couple of sessions.
So in went the Aussies ... and at the end of a violently
lopsided day the scoreboard read 364 for two with Matthew Hayden on 186 not out,
thank you very much.
Further legend has it that a wag in the England dressing
room ventured at the close (and tellingly didn’t receive any laughter at all in
reply): “Is it still doing a bit, skip?”
On the “Nasser Scale” of regrettable captaincy calls, Graeme
Smith’s one at SuperSport Park here on Wednesday pales greatly in comparison.
Yet the fact remains that the Baggy Greens are nicely in the
driving seat at 297 for four in the first Test against the No 1-ranked side and
probably thinking that 500 is within grasp – almost always a safety blanket against
defeat, at the very least – while the Proteas must try to somehow limit the
damage to 400 or less, slightly against the odds now.
Expect some chortling Down Under, plus suggestions, no
doubt, that Smith has handed the visitors a psychological advantage for the
series as a whole by declining to take first strike against Mitchell Johnson
and his fellow head-hunters on the glorious Highveld morning.
Deep down, after three sessions in which Australia only
gained a stronger and stronger foothold, Smith will probably ruefully have
conceded to himself that things didn’t work out at all in the manner he’d
desired they would.
It is also public knowledge now that strike kingpin Dale
Steyn entered the game debilitated by an overnight gastro bug, which meant he,
for one, was a bit down on pace – though admirably not lacking in resolve -- at
a time when putting down immediate markers for this late-summer combat was a
But even with that drawback in mind, the truth of the matter
is that the captain’s judgement cannot be called into significant question.
They always say you can weigh up the success or otherwise of
fielding first by the lunchtime scoreboard, and his charges did hold the aces
at the break: Australia were 83 for three and not long afterwards, when Steyn
suckered Michael Clarke into a slightly lackadaisical skied pull, on the rack
to a good degree at 98 for four.
That is not very persuasive evidence for saying “oops, wrong
decision”, is it?
The pitch had certainly shown some spitefulness in the opening
session, including exhibiting an up-and-down characteristic, and from that
wobbly position by the batting side, South Africa were not at all far away from
getting stuck into the tourists’ tail.
Instead the ball got softer (word is that it was unusually
so, after not even 40 overs), the sun hotter ... and Aussie middle-order
players Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith pretty much played out of their skins in a
quite dramatic turnaround.
Their fifth-wicket alliance is already worth 199 and showing
fair promise of blossoming further unless the Proteas’ fast men show much
better energy levels than displayed when they finally took the new ball towards
the end of the day’s play – Marsh and Smith only batted with greater contempt
and verve after its appearance.
Marsh’s is a fairytale story of sorts: the left-hander was
initially picked for the tour squad, then withdrawn through injury, before
flying out (much closer to full fitness again) as late as Sunday to bolster the
ranks after Shane Watson’s own mishap.
Hastily shooed into the side at No 4, he acclimatised
notably speedily, didn’t he?
In what is still only the 30-year-old’s eighth Test, he is
handsomely placed on 122 not out and has well in his sights his prior best
score of 141 achieved on debut against Sri Lanka in 2011.
“Statistics for the ground say enough,” said Proteas
all-rounder Ryan McLaren, when inevitably asked first up at the post-play press
conference to explain Smith’s toss decision.
“Teams that have bowled first at this ground in the fairly
recent past have tended to end up winning – I think that was the thinking
Indeed, on the last two occasions at SuperSport Park where
“Biff” has won the toss and bowled, his side have backed it up by duly bowling
out Sri Lanka for 180 and, before that, India for 136 in comfortable respective
Only in this case, Australia haven’t agreed to simply go
“Maybe we could have increased the intensity a bit more,
going into the second session,” McLaren, who was one of the better bowlers,
“Tomorrow’s another day and we have shown the character many
times before to come back fighting ... I’ve got no doubt the boys will respond
They may need to.
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