Australia in SA

Proteas to rescue it for Biff?

2014-03-04 07:20
Graeme Smith (Gallo)

Cape Town – Don’t go anywhere, for this is South Africa -- modern kings of the Houdini feat -- under the cosh and that can mean excitement beyond wildest dreams.

GALLERY: Biff in pictures

Can ... and now “will” is just that bit likelier after the oddly-timed but earth-shattering late-night announcement on Monday that this is captain Graeme Smith’s final Test appearance for his country.

The Proteas have been a two-tone outfit in the series against Australia – sometimes classy, sometimes cowed – and there must be a good chance they will swiftly erase their Newlands lethargy and fight for all they are worth to save the series, powered by a grim desire not to make their leader’s swansong an unpalatable one.

Yet with two days to play in the decisive third contest, the noose only seems to be tightening around the Proteas’ collective necks: just how many more fight-back miracles can this band of men work, after all?

Smith’s team, with the veteran captain himself continuing his miserable series form, were not nearly obdurate enough in their first innings on Monday and then, in what should have been a spirited burst at the Aussie top order in the lengthening shadows, fired only a peashooter with Morne Morkel the glaringly most wasteful man behind the trigger.

Trailing already by 207 runs on the first knock, cocksure series nemesis David Warner rubbed salt into wounds by romping to an unbeaten 25 off 17 balls to extend the Aussie lead to 234 with all 10 wickets intact before the merciful sanctuary of stumps for South Africa.

The Baggy Greens seem to hold all the aces, and unless there is a spectacular clatter of wickets on Tuesday morning – there were at least signs Dale Steyn might bowl again -- Michael Clarke could have the luxury of declaring around halfway through the day’s play and probably some 420 to 450 runs to the good.

If Warner continues on his bruising way, threatening a second advance to three figures in the match, the bell may even ring earlier.

 But South Africa having to bat out around 140 overs to save the series threatens to be their minimum requirement: and if they could only manage 82.5 of them with conditions pretty certainly less challenging in their first turn at the crease, what price a greatly lengthier vigil the next time?

Barring a dramatic slump by the tourists, stonewalling for a draw seems the only option now for the Proteas, as statistics at the picturesque ground paint a largely bleak picture if they somehow still aspire to winning.

For starters, the highest fourth-innings total in a Newlands win is 334 for six, so the Proteas have to rip out the Aussies for the addition of only some 100 runs or fewer if they are to go after a target within that range.

That victory was achieved by the very same Australia in 2001/02, earning them early achievement of the series triumph in the second Test of a three-match series.

On that occasion, and with South Africa understandably favoured for an equalising win at the outset of the chase, Ricky Ponting’s 100 not out and 96 from Matthew Hayden made the crucial difference.

At least to their credit, South Africa had amassed 473 in their own second innings then after trailing by plenty on the first, and occupied the crease for all of 162 overs in doing so – reminding that the Newlands pitch is not necessarily a beast to bat on in the second half of a Test match.

The top fourth-innings total of any kind at the ground is 354 for five, achieved by West Indies in 2004 when the draw they earned in the third Test staved off a whitewash in the four-Test series which they surrendered 3-0.

They had been set a target of 441, and Dwayne Smith’s unbeaten 105 and 86 from the fading genius Brian Lara helped them pull of a courageous stalemate.

The Windies lasted exactly 100 overs in achieving that outcome, so there is every chance the Proteas in the current Test will have to eclipse that tally by quite some distance to get off the hook against the pumped-up Australians.

You have little in sport if you don’t possess belief, and we know Smith’s outfit are seldom wanting in that department, even when they are stuck in a corner.

It is something to hold onto, in what otherwise seems a crumbling fortress.

At least the magnificent Newlands Test public haven’t given up all hope, judging by the healthy day three attendance.

Plenty of them will be back for the game’s run-in, you would think, despite South Africa’s hazardous situation ... and not at all discounting the chance of a fitting, typical rearguard action by a certain GC Smith himself.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  sainoz  |  graeme smith  |  cricket

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