Australia in SA

SA’s tail has critical job

2014-02-13 22:40
AB de Villiers (AFP)

Centurion - The Proteas face a nerve-jangling first session of the middle day of the first Test against Australia at SuperSport Park here on Friday.

SA v Oz - Day 2 as it happened

Their immediate task, of course, is to try to take any follow-on temptation out of the hands of Aussie captain Michael Clarke by dragging South Africa’s sickly first innings total to the relative sanctuary of 198 or more.

That is still 58 runs away, with four wickets in hand ... it could go either way, especially if Mitchell Johnson again fancies a lethal combination of both bodily harm and productive activity in the wickets column.

Much may depend on whether AB de Villiers, only very recently fit again after a significant layoff but showing a combination of guts and skill to keep Johnson and company reasonably at bay with his unbeaten half-century, can knuckle down once more.

If he is ripped out early, the job of avoiding the possible follow-on will be that much harder, even if Robin Peterson has looked fairly assured in the infant stages of his innings and Vernon Philander, next in at No 9, is determinedly revisiting his all-rounder credentials these days.

Ideally, the under-the-cosh South Africans must aspire to not only inching their way to 198, but then occupying the crease for as long as possible thereafter.

It is important because of the nature of this series, where the three Tests are virtually back to back and how much time each bowling unit has to endure under the unforgiving late summer sun could play a role in determining which way the eventual spoils go.

The Proteas had to send down 122 overs in the Highveld heat as the Aussies, debatably asked to take first strike, registered a touch under 400 runs.

So far, the Baggy Greens’ attack – although featuring just four specialists to the hosts’ five -- have only been required to bowl around a third of that tally, and if they mop up the remaining SA batsmen quickly, will be significantly less footsore after the first-knock combat.

It then begs the question of whether Clarke would, in fact, enforce the follow on if the luxury presents itself.

It would be a powerful, humiliating psychological statement to make against the No 1-ranked side in the world, offering not only the possibility of a valued early finish to this Test, but the chance that the Proteas would end up being the ones bowling last and getting more fatigued in that respect if the Aussies can be set a target of some kind.

But Clarke will also be well aware not only that bowling straight away again makes special physical demands on the bowlers, but that Graeme Smith’s charges have a modern hallmark as a notably tenacious – and sometimes even heavy-scoring -- second-knock side.

It cannot be ruled out that he would opt instead to bat, under relatively little pressure, and make sure South Africa are the ones batting last on a deteriorating surface.

Left-arm thunderbolt Johnson, the individual premier performer of day two, was understandably cagey about follow-on prospects when asked by Sport24 after Thursday’s play whether he fancied an immediate second crack at the Proteas batsmen, should it be an option.

“We’ve still got four wickets to get, and AB is still in. We’ve got a long way to go, so that’s what we need to focus on: getting ourselves right tonight and then turning up in the morning.

“We know Peterson can score runs as well, and their tail can score runs ... they’ve done it to us in the past.”

Johnson was no doubt thinking momentarily about the epic, match- and series-turning ninth-wicket alliance between JP Duminy (166) and unlikely partner Dale Steyn (career-best 76) at Melbourne in 2008/09.

If South African enthusiasts want to try to bank any good omens right now, Johnson was in the Aussie side then, and Steyn will return to the crease at No 10 in this particular innings.

“We don’t want them to get away from us, and then we’ll (take things) from there,” Johnson added.

“The ball wasn’t swinging too much so I thought I’d dig it in a bit more. There were a few cracks out there, from quite early on ... I don’t know if it is quite a WACA-like wicket, but it felt there was something in it when I was out there batting and seeing how some balls carried through.

“There was something different, when you went a bit back of a length. I do like bowling on pitches like that ... it’s probably more inconsistent than you’d see at the WACA, though.”

Perhaps “inconsistency” isn’t a word the Proteas fancy hearing about the pitch, considering the bruising they have already taken on it.

Their renowned powers of resilience are being tested, once more ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  ozinsa  |  ab de villiers  |  robin peterson  |  cricket
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