Proteas in Australia

Don’t call Proteas popgun yet

2012-11-12 14:21
Vernon Philander (Gallo)
Cape Town – There will have been desperately few days in Test cricket quite like it for abject lack of productivity by South Africa and contrasting, moral high ground for the opposition.

A familiar school of staunchly Australian critics, inevitably, haven’t been slow to latch onto it either: commentator and former national captain Ian Chappell believes the Baggy Greens’ batsmen “dented the mentality” of the Proteas’ much-vaunted, pace-dominated attack on the fourth day of the opening encounter in Brisbane.

“They’ve been made (to look at times) ... anything but No 1 in the world.”

Even that admirably less jaundiced of Aussies, Tom Moody, has hinted at some semblance of psychological scarring so early in the three-Test series, noting of Graeme Smith’s rather dumbstruck and beleaguered troops in the field: “The body language has really dropped off.”

Still, these were the sort of observations the tourists must have known they would cop flush on the chin after what might be termed their “maudlin Monday” at the Gabba.

Think about it: when last did the South Africans suffer single-day pain comparable to what transpired, with the Aussies belting 376 runs across the three sessions for the loss of just one wicket – and even that to one of those desperately unlucky, “finger-tip jobs” by the bowler to run out the non-striking batsman (Ed Cowan, albeit not before registering a cracking, Test-best 136)?

I would suggest you have to go back some six years to 2006, when Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara greedily occupied the crease throughout day two of the first Test at Colombo and added 357 runs without being separated.

Four of the current Proteas side will have had to add Monday’s torment to that prior experience: Jacques Rudolph, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn.

With unbeaten double-tonner Michael Clarke sumptuously to the fore, the host nation are rollicking along at four runs to the over, which is the stuff of the heyday of Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and company.

A further merry old tonk is on the cards in the first session of day five, which will at least force the Proteas – who had perhaps complacently started the day thinking they were the ones with the whip hand -- back to the crease with just a little pressure to have to deal with as they seek to ensure the safety of a draw.

That has got to be considered overwhelmingly still the favourite outcome, on what has been a belter for batting, despite some mischievous, hopeful home-town theories that “some cracks may widen” and so on.

No question: it was a humbling, jolting experience for South Africa, and their first really serious bruising since the installation of the Steyn-Morkel-Philander alliance as top-tier seam arsenal.

They did not build or sustain any meaningful spells of pressure, a situation only aggravated by an epidemic of no-balls with Vernon Philander and labouring debutant Rory Kleinveldt the chief culprits.

Steyn having an unusual, fruitless day in the wickets column may have eased, just for the time being, Aussie coach Mickey Arthur’s anxiety that his statements about the Phalaborwa Express’s competence against left-handers might come back to bite him.

The lanky Morkel came the closest of any Proteas bowler, again, to making breakthroughs, although his specific  crime thus far – not for the first time in his 43-match Test career – has been to grab two much-needed “wickets” with quickly-diagnosed no-balls himself.

Meanwhile the sight of all of Smith, Amla and Alviro Petersen delivering some donkey drops effectively provided further irritation to all SA-partial folk because it was so obviously an admission that leaving out leg-spinner Imran Tahir had been an error of some substance.

But is the situation in bigger-picture terms really as bleak as some pessimists and serial detractors are suddenly making it out to be, merely on the grounds of one wretched day at the office?

Of course it’s not.

South Africa have not lost this Test, and – famous last words -- should save it pretty comfortably, even from the handicap situation of being a batsman down for its duration.

It is the Aussies who really need to make the running in the series, as they must win it to knock the Proteas off their top-ranked pedestal ... and from here the hostilities switch to Adelaide, where high scoring is again a good prospect as the track there is known to be challenging for quicker men.

So in many respects this may have been the wake-up call South Africa needed, and emphatically got.

Gary Kirsten is famously anything but a “panic-mechanic” and there is no guarantee that particularly harsh words would even have been employed by either the coach or captain in the dressing room on Monday night. (Mind you, if they were they would not have been entirely unjustified.)

This Proteas Test side, mature and conscientious, prides itself in winning “key moments” and, primarily because of the entire wipe-out of day two at the Gabba, this particular Test has had a bit of a surreal feel and seldom (yet, anyway) produced really red-letter sessions or intense, one-on-one encounters.

Yes, Australia have fired off a loud message about their intended series competitiveness.

But, suitably chastened, I wouldn’t write off the likelihood that the South African bowlers have just experienced their nadir Down Under -- quite probably in a stalemate affair -- and the only way is up.

Any little wagers on that?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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