Proteas in Australia

Proteas keep flirting with peril

2012-11-30 14:01
Vernon Philander of SA celebrates with team-mates after taking the wicket of Shane Watson. (Gallo)
Cape Town – If South Africa somehow yet win this intriguing Test series in Australia, they will have done it more through sheer bloody-minded unwillingness to cave in than by the more orthodox, special qualities we expected from them.

They keep making life immensely difficult for themselves ... and day one of the decisive third Test in Perth on Friday only repeated a pattern that has been evident – yes, worrisomely so -- for the most part since the combat began at Brisbane.

A disastrous, shortish spell at the crease by Graeme Smith’s side just before lunch and then immediately after it, has probably already gone quite a long way to ensuring that the WACA ground continues its modern tradition of not favouring drawn outcomes.

Keep in mind that that is one result the Proteas would quietly bank gratefully in this Test, given its great weight in ensuring that their No 1 status would remain safe for the time being by virtue of a shared series.

But with their topsy-turvy old first innings only lasting 74 overs after winning the toss, and with excellent weather on the radar right through to Tuesday as things stand, it is already much more feasible to assume that this game will produce an overdue positive outcome either way.

There was certainly some inspired bowling at times by the Aussies’ completely restructured pace attack, whilst off-spinner Nathan Lyon is also well in this game unexpectedly early.

But 225 all out? The grittiness of the South African lower order, in at least partially salvaging a lamentable situation of 75 for six, only demonstrated how those above them were overwhelmingly architects of their own downfall.

Let’s not kid ourselves: there is something in it for the bowlers on the excitingly pacy surface, and may well be for the duration of this match, but in what might prove a telling blow further down the line, four of the Proteas’ normally steely top five rather self-destructed in this critical foundation-building phase of a Test.

Poor footwork accounted for a well-set Alviro Petersen (the Lions man getting himself dismissed once promisingly “in” is becoming a niggly little issue in itself) and ditto Jacques Kallis and then AB de Villiers, for whom big scores and wicketkeeping are becoming increasingly incompatible bedfellows, in cold statistical terms.

Just as unforgivable (and it seemed that old quick-single chaser De Villiers was mostly at fault) was Hashim Amla being surrendered to a direct-hit run-out.

Given the situation at the time, it just added more boulders to a rocky road.

Considering that 125 was once looking in serious danger of being the grand sum of the tourists’ efforts, the determined repair job headed by Faf du Plessis – marvellously in-form and as cool and clinical as on stellar debut in Adelaide – has at least given them the feeling that they still have a beating heart in this game.

It was a shame that both Robin Peterson and Vernon Philander also allowed themselves to be undone a tad needlessly after getting past the 30-mark each, but their resolve not to become bogged down had been commendable and their dying by the sword was more excusable.

Philander, for instance, was pretty unlucky to pick out Mike Hussey under an enormously high, swirling ball at long-on as he attempted to drive Lyon for a repeat of an earlier, consummately successful stroke for six.

The Aussie veteran seldom disappoints in this capacity and made a difficult catch look relatively easy.

A minor blessing for Philander, nevertheless, was that his exit only hastened his re-emergence to the battleground with a new ball in his hand, and he and Dale Steyn were responsible for some morale-boosting inroads into the Baggy Greens’ batting.

There was enough playing and missing by various Australians, including night watchman Lyon, to suggest that wickets may yet fall in productive volleys from a South African point of view and relative first-knock parity is possible. Psst, even a lead?

Still, with the likes of swansong man Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Hussey yet to take guard, it is “advantage Australia” on paper at this juncture, as has been the case for generous dollops of the series.

Is it just me or might the South Africans come to rue the decision to beef the side with a rookie batsman, Dean Elgar, at the expense of an extra seam component like Ryan McLaren, who is no slouch with the blade?

For the record, I was thinking that even before Elgar recorded his unfortunate first-dig duck, which can and sometimes does happen to any debutant.

The Proteas attack just looks one fast man light for the conditions, and perhaps too generously stocked in spin options, when you consider that specialist Peterson may be assisted by part-timers Du Plessis and Elgar if the situation demands it ... and if it does, in significant doses, I would also suggest that South Africa may be struggling to dislodge Australians.

A cheeky thought by a Cricinfo “couch contributor” was that perhaps the tourists secretly anticipate coaxing a few overs out of the recuperating Kallis much deeper into the match.

That scenario did flicker just for a second in my own mind ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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