Cape Town – The extraordinary debut success of Faf du
Plessis may just have turned the Test series between Australia and South Africa
dramatically on its head.
A little like JP Duminy’s unscheduled entry to the fray in
the last series Down Under proved pivotal to the historic outcome, the Titans
customer’s match-saving century at Adelaide Oval on Monday has given the
Proteas an opening to cash in on likely Aussie mental and physical fatigue for
the decisive final Test in Perth from Friday.
The irony, of course, is that Duminy seized his opportunity
with both hands in 2008/09 after injury struck down Ashwell Prince, and here it
is Duminy’s misfortune that was instrumental in giving the 28-year-old Du
Plessis his belated first chance in the Test arena.
Australia v South Africa 2nd Test Day 5 Highlights
There is a short turnaround to the WACA, and the tourists
have a rare – for the series thus far – and timely sniff of blood considering
that they have been on the back foot for the bulk of the first two contests yet
still managed to maintain all-square status.
The Baggy Greens’ captain, Michael Clarke, while maintaining
his customary cheery countenance, just about admitted in the post-match
television interview at hot Adelaide that the spirited South African rearguard
would have taken a toll on his team.
“To bowl 148 overs (in the SA second innings) and not win the
Test match ... that does hurt.”
Quite clearly first prize for the Proteas on Friday will be
to try to win the toss (it is 1-1 on that score in the series) and take first
strike, forcing the footsore likes of Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus and Nathan
Lyon – assuming all three play, as they probably will -- straight into the
The admirably persevering Siddle was out on his feet by the
end of the tourists’ successful defiance on Monday.
He bowled 64 overs beneath the unsympathetic South
Australian sun in this Test, which is a formidable tally for a quickie,
Hilfenhaus got through 54, and the off-spinner Lyon will also not be the
freshest fellow on the planet after as many as 94.
In total, Australia bowled 272 overs in the Test to South
Africa’s 177, and it is a weird thought that they have effectively been
“punished” for batting so swiftly and commandingly in their first knock.
It would be educative, incidentally, to learn when last a Test
bowler – as Lyon did – sent down 50 overs in a single innings at a cost of
fractionally less than one run per over (0.98).
But that was also an indication of just how doggedly the
Proteas clung on against the odds despite leaking as many as four wickets on
“He hasn’t wavered all day,” was the tribute to man-of-the-match
and unbeaten century-maker Du Plessis from former national captain Kepler
Wessels as his near eight-hour vigil came close to its safe completion.
And when incumbent skipper Graeme Smith brands your innings
“immense”, you also know it is coming from someone to whom that description has
often before been given.
Of course the draw would also not have been possible without
the critical support Du Plessis received from his friend AB de Villiers and
that peerless, injury-hampered character known as Jacques Kallis.
Just a further fillip for the Proteas, looking ahead to the
decider – and remember that Australia have to win to knock South Africa off No
1 spot – was De Villiers negotiating so much personal time at the crease.
Usually an innings of 33 from him would not last
particularly long, but remarkably he faced all of 220 balls which in many other
circumstances would have taken him well, well past the century mark.
So the hitherto labouring batsman/wicketkeeper ought to take
heart from his effort and expect to experience greater freedom in stroke-play
on the fast WACA surface where the ball hits the bat quicker but can also be
thumped faster and further as a result.
Collectively, the Proteas will have their tails up in a big
way after having the kitchen sink thrown at them by a dominant Australian side
at Brisbane and Adelaide, yet resisting the impact of it each time and living
to fight another day.
But they will also know that they are overdue to play much
closer to potential in the Western Australian capital, especially with regard
to bowling consistencies.
The South Africans have not played like the top-ranked side
in the world on this tour yet, and it will be a disappointment, frankly, if
they have to use a get-out-of-jail card again to ensure even honours in the
final fixture and cling to the mace in that way. They must strike for the win.
There are many selection issues to discuss ahead of the WACA
Test, with player fitness situations obviously a key element.
But South Africa have at least demonstrated their pedigree
in terms of fighting spirit, and you just begin to wonder whether the balance
is shifting their way at a perfect time.
I know which dressing room would have been buzzing more on
Monday evening in Adelaide.
The other would have been examining blisters.
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