Clarke repeats ‘Kallis’ trick
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It was one of those challenging, chilly days at Newlands where cream needs to rise to the surface.
Video highlights: SA v Australia on Day 1
In the last Test match there, the traditional New Year one in 2010/11 against India, South Africa’s Jacques Kallis proved himself a cut above the rest as a batsman on the first day in conditions similar to day one of this fixture against Australia on Wednesday.
Despite being severely hampered by a painful side and rib injury, Kallis kept India’s frisky seam attack at bay in the dampness and gloom, eventually scoring an utterly laudable 161 in a first innings total of 362 after the Proteas had been sent in following the loss of an important toss.
Circumstances were near-identical this time, with the Aussies instead the recipients of the bad news that they were going to be inserted after a rain-delayed start.
Once again a senior batsman’s resilience and skill was going to be required to keep a ship afloat, and it came in the form of the Baggy Greens’ captain Michael Clarke, who was still fighting the good fight and had accounted for exactly 50 percent of their runs in a wobbly total of 214 for eight when bad light stopped play.
Clarke’s 107 not out at a particularly praiseworthy rate of almost a run a ball was a country mile better than anything else the tourists could offer in the taxing environment, with the pitch offering sometimes spiteful bounce and movement off the seam, and a cold westerly wind preventing any special drying and calming of the surface during the 55 overs that were possible.
With Clarke having reached his 16th Test century and second against South Africa - first on this soil - the Australians will be hoping he can somehow nurse the tail closer to a score of 250 which may just prove to be roughly a “par” situation.
So the Proteas will not be doing any premature whooping about what looks like an advantageous situation on paper but could yet be proved to be not quite so convincing.
When these foes last met at Newlands in a dead-rubber Test in March 2009, Australia were bundled out for 209 in their first innings and then South Africa went ballistic to post 651 in reply - the Proteas would very gleefully bank about half that tally on this occasion, I imagine.
Just how well they do when they eventually take strike - quite obviously they will be hoping to be in business in that respect in the first session on Thursday - may well be strongly dependant on the weather.
It is certainly expected to be drier and sunnier henceforth, but maximum temperatures are not expected to crawl out of the teens to any major extent over the next few days so the pitch may stay kinder to pace bowling than batting.
Indeed, the now Aussie-based former Proteas coach Mickey Arthur, in a tweet during play on Wednesday, observed: “I would be a little worried batting fourth as bounce seems inconsistent already.”
He also felt that the home attack offered up “too many four-balls” which allowed the Australians to prosper in bursts, just after South Africa had seemed destined to take especially firm grips on proceedings.
Still, the Proteas are clearly very much in this game and, on the subject of quality shining through, they have their premier strike bowler Dale Steyn to thank for restoring a stranglehold after Clarke and a tenacious relative rookie at No 3, the left-handed Shaun Marsh, had actually put the visitors in a nose-in-front position with a fourth-wicket century stand.
Steyn, always high-paced and bristling, underlined his admirable “go to” status by ripping out Marsh for 44 just before tea and then adding Brad Haddin for a personal fourth scalp of the day to put the Aussies right back on their heels.
This ground often brings out the best in the now Cobras-based Phalaborwa Express, and it was very much the case again here.
He received promising support from debutant Vernon Philander, always trying to bowl constructively and purposefully, which helped offset the fact that Morne Morkel too often found the extravagance of the conditions detrimental to his consistency and the fourth seamer, Jacques Kallis, looked more than a little arthritic.
Mind you, it was the sort of day that might have kept any self-respecting 36-year-old just a bit stiffer than usual.
Slight advantage South Africa? I might just postpone that judgement to after Mitchell Johnson’s first spell for the Aussies ...
*Follow chief writer Rob Houwing on Twitter: @RobHouwing