SA's best and worst in a day
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Warts and all from both sets of combatants, what a weird, yet undoubtedly captivating little Test series this is turning out to be.
One-nil to the good and presumably desperate - I say presumably because sometimes it has not looked like it – to get at least a convincing, no-loss outcome from of the final encounter at the Wanderers to win their first home series against Australia in the post-isolation era, the Proteas flirted very dangerously with possible disaster in the first session of day two on Friday.
Their plans for an early shut-out of the tourists already in some state of dishevelment after only totalling 266 in their first innings a day earlier, Graeme Smith’s side were pounded to all corners of the Bullring as the Aussies’ reply began in imperious fashion from Phillip Hughes and Shane Watson.
The opening batsmen, both too often given the liberty they crave to free their arms and give the ball an old-fashioned welly, went along at a rollicking lick as the pre-lunch play was overwhelmingly dominated by the Baggy Greens.
The sum of 169 runs from 33 overs, in a session stretched by almost half an hour due to weather disruption on Thursday, at 5.12 runs per over is about as tasty a feast as you could wish for if you were Australian – and you could almost say the blank wickets column was “minus one” considering that along the way South Africa also declined a review against Hughes when he was proved out on 38, exactly 50 runs shy of his eventual contribution.
Veteran SA-watchers could have been tempted to wonder whether that session might have been the country’s least productive ever in the field in Tests ... until they chewed on prior periods of awful fruitlessness, as would have happened often, for instance, during the marathon Jayawardene-Sangakkara third-wicket alliance of 624 for Sri Lanka against the Proteas at Colombo in 2006.
Instead, in this instance South Africa were decisively not flogged into submission!
In events totally in keeping with the schizophrenic nature of the series thus far, the hosts found some quite remarkable recovery mojo, starting gently by getting their basic bowling disciplines infinitely tighter and beginning to reel in the hitherto damaging run rate.
Depriving both Watson and Hughes of centuries was also a positive development, after they had seemed set so fair for them -- and what happened next was almost the stuff of fairytale as the Aussie innings gradually deflated like a beach ball snared and punctured on a barbed wire fence.
Confirming the periodic fragility that has afflicted both sides in the series, the tourists basically buckled from 174 without loss to 296 all out – yes, that’s 10 for 122 -- and a pretty negligible first-knock lead of 30 that they will know ought to have been six or seven times that tally or more.
The situation really amounted to even-stevens, as most educated Test-lovers will know, bearing in mind that it is the Aussies who must bat last on a pitch likely to deteriorate to a fairly meaningful extent if it remains subjected to good doses of hot Highveld sunshine.
It must be said that everyone in the South African attack got his game together to a seriously praiseworthy degree after lunch, mostly backed by good sharpness among the fielders and wicketkeeper, although the wicket-grabbing damage ended up mostly inflicted by Dale Steyn and, in a welcome development, Imran Tahir.
Steyn is an amazing athlete: the main strike bowler was not at his best, and notably down on gas initially, but he seldom stays out of a game for long and almost before you could say “bang” he was back in business, those chainsaw-imitating celebrations reminding us all that his lustre had returned.
He would have had yet another five-for but for a “dolly” catching blooper by substitute fielder Dale Deeb, but it did facilitate an extra scalp (his third) not long afterwards for leg-spinner Tahir, who effectively announced himself as a factor for the Proteas in this format of the game.
The popular, Pakistan-born journeyman played a major role in knocking over the Australian tail, which is always one of the known key values of his art, and his classic wrong ‘un to bamboozle and bowl Peter Siddle is worth replaying over and over again.
Some perspective is important, even amidst South Africa’s rightful dressing-room satisfaction about their brilliant work in the second two-thirds of Friday’s play.
This match, after all, looks increasingly likely not to end in a draw considering the stealth with which it is moving, and that is a particularly positive aspect from an Australian point of view as they are playing catch-up to try to grab a share of the outrageously short series.
Whatever happens over the next two or three days, it cries out ever more loudly, considering the massive fluctuations and thrills and spills, for a third encounter that sadly won’t be happening ...