SA consistent... for rashness
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - They may well find other methods to crack the Australian nut at the Wanderers and clinch the Test series all the same, but once again the Proteas have rather mucked up a golden opportunity to get on top of opponents by methodical, conventional means.
Scorecard after Day 1
Video Highlights: South Africa v Australia, 2nd Test Day 1
I suggested before this key second and final Test that South Africa tend to prosper in the five-day arena more on the back of various gifted individuals’ episodes or fits of brilliance than because of any truly impressive “blanket” team effort.
It might well be that imperfect aspect to their makeup that keeps them from monopolising Test cricket in the manner we’d all hoped they would after big-statement away series wins in first England and then Australia roughly three years back.
Yet again at the Bullring on Thursday, exasperating flaws as a collective came to the fore when a magnificent chance to take a strong grip on day one was rather frittered away - especially in an awfully lame three quarters of an hour in the curtailed final session when six wickets were squandered to an Aussie side who may suddenly be feeling altogether happier about life again after the nightmare of Newlands.
So much seemed stacked in South Africa’s favour as Michael Clarke predictably lost the toss under a glorious blue sky, and then not too long into the Proteas’ first innings Shane Watson pulled up crocked - hardly for the first time for this luckless cricketer - soon after taking a wicket.
It simply deepened the likelihood that South Africa would cash in royally at the crease, grinding the hard-pressed Aussies down in the Highveld heat, ideally batting for something close to five sessions and thus posting the sort of total to all but shut the tourists out of the mini-series.
Instead the Proteas scrambled - and that word is specifically intended in a negative sense - to 266 all out in 71 overs, easily failing to negotiate even three sessions and coming up some 40 percent short, you suspect, on their start-out intention for a satisfying total.
It is true that you shouldn’t be too quick to judge a pitch until the opposition have also batted on it, and there is enough current shakiness to the Aussie line-up both structurally and mentally to suggest that there is even a chance the South African first-dig effort will end up looking reasonably handsome.
But it is frustrating nevertheless that the Proteas folded quite markedly instead of building on at least two budding phases of the innings when foundations were either being competently dug, or at least tidily rebuilt.
South Africa narrowly won the first two sessions of the day, where they scored 107 and 106 runs respectively, each time for the loss of two wickets, but madcap events after tea only undid a huge chunk of the promise shown.
Maybe Chris Scott’s surface - the veteran curator was apparently especially happy with it beforehand - wasn’t quite as willow-friendly as was suggested at the start of play, with some batsmen seemingly surprised by a bit of a two-paced characteristic.
So if the staple theory that 450 ought to be on the cards was gradually downgraded to “350 might be pretty decent”, the Proteas subsided to such a degree that they couldn’t even sniff that outcome.
The plain truth was that, with at least four of their top six getting properly “in”, and half-centuries going the way of all of AB de Villiers, Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince, none of these players dropping anchor and actually staying there was a surprise and a disappointment from a home-team point of view.
It was the kind of innings that often hinted it might develop a speed wobble, even while hurtling along at a merry old tempo - sometimes very buccaneering indeed - and when it came, three wheels rolled off unceremoniously into the roadside bushes, as it were.
Of the top seven batsmen in the order, only openers Graeme Smith and Jacques Rudolph could convincingly be described to have fallen to good ‘uns, with a jarring cocktail of impatience and poor shot selection largely being the downfall of the others.
Fresh scrutiny is quite obviously going to start going the way of Mark Boucher, the seasoned wicketkeeper who is meant to marshal the expansive South African tail but succumbed particularly impetuously himself, with those below him mostly only confirming their vulnerability.
Certainly the present Proteas side cannot hold a candle to No 1-ranked England for an eight, nine and 10 comprising, say, players of the quality of Messrs Bresnan, Swann and Broad who are capable of not merely sticking around but also prospering rather handsomely at times, too.
Give the Australian attack credit for sticking to its guns, even as prospects of a really formidable South African total flickered at times.
But there have been and will be again many better bowling units in Test cricket than theirs fielded on Thursday - this experienced Proteas batting order should have mastered it, and they’d be deceiving themselves if they didn’t acknowledge it.
Dare one say it, something “ordinary” still lurks puzzlingly in the South African side, and it will be Gary Kirsten’s task to fathom over the next few months precisely why it does.
“At 240 for four you (should be) dominating the game,” Kallis reportedly said ruefully afterwards.
Whether mastery of this vital contest now swings damagingly the other way remains to be seen ...