Proteas’ first-knock frailty just drags on

2018-03-22 21:32
Faf du Plessis (Gallo)

Cape Town - What is the significance of January 23, 2016?

It was on that date, almost exactly 26 months ago, that South Africa last went past the 400-mark in their first innings of a Test match against any of the other nations in the format’s most traditional modern “big four” - the Proteas, plus India, Australia and England.

Removing some of the shine from that achievement, too, was the fact that it came in a dead-rubber environment, the visiting English already having sealed the four-match series ahead of the final encounter at Centurion.

Nevertheless, in a game comfortably won by SA to pull back the final outcome to 2-1, centuries from all of Quinton de Kock, Hashim Amla and debutant Stephen Cook helped the hosts post a formidable 475 all out after winning the toss.

But they haven’t reproduced that particular trick in any of 12 completed first digs against those co-heavyweights since.

A 13th crack, currently on the go against Australia in the third Test at Newlands, seems highly unlikely to have that outcome, either … unless the magnificently blushes-sparing Dean Elgar finds a lot more energy on day two (having already faced 253 deliveries in an all-day vigil for 121 not out on Thursday) and remaining tail-enders Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel can bat way above their respective, limited norms.

At the end of a day’s play in which Aussie paceman Pat Cummins was a third-session party spoiler of some magnitude, the Proteas had truly wilted from a budding platform of 220 for two at one point to 266 for eight in conditions largely conducive to productive run-scoring.

Never mind 400 or more, the home team would happily enough bank 300 from this position now, especially as the Baggy Greens have a still-shiny new ball in their hands; it had only been used for five deliveries until bad light forced a fractionally early close.

Another pretty violent capitulation at the crease by South Africa also served up a sobering reminder of how gravely AB de Villiers, who invariably keeps the scoreboard moving at a very brisk rate while he is at the crease, will be missed when he quits the international arena (probably all formats) as anticipated after the 2019 World Cup.

As SuperSport commentator and former Proteas skipper Shaun Pollock noted after Thursday’s play, the importance of De Villiers to the Test cause was only underlined: “When he got out, everything fell around him.”

Well, except for the barnacle who was Elgar, of course, although Pollock didn’t need to add that.

While Elgar and De Villiers were together, in a third-wicket stand that produced 128 runs in roughly 30 overs and looked as fluent and at-ease as could be, the very real prospect flashed brightly that South Africa - already boasting some momentum after their series-levelling triumph in Port Elizabeth - would bat the tourists out of the game (at least as far as an away win is concerned) by some time deep into day two.

But then, out of the blue and on 64, De Villiers mistimed an elegant enough, but uppish drive, sending the ball into the almost startled, disbelieving hands of David Warner at mid-off, signalling the start of a dramatic volley of scalps by Cummins that silenced large sections of a hitherto chipper, sun-soaked crowd estimated at around 9 000.

Five subsequent batsmen, including now horribly out-of-touch captain Faf du Plessis, fell in single figures, all but frittering away any hopes of reaching the 350-or-more score most pundits fancy is par requirement on the surface.

Du Plessis has registered 35 runs from five turns at the crease in this series, really summing up how the middle-order near-routinely “falls away” these days once someone like De Villiers is back in the pavilion.

Of course weighty scores have still come relatively freely to the Proteas’ batting line-up in Tests against decidedly second-league foes like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh recently but, with respect, it is against the “cream” trio of opponents that SA are best measured.

And it is not good reading in that respect … hasn’t been for a good while, going a long way to explaining up-and-down series results.

South Africa posted 382 in Port Elizabeth and 162 in Durban as first-knock totals in the current, ding-dong series where bowlers have generally ruled the roost, whilst in the prior home series against India it was 194 in Johannesburg, 335 at Centurion and 286 in Cape Town.

In the away series against England in 2017, won 3-1 by the hosts, the Proteas got only 226 at Old Trafford, 175 at The Oval, 335 at Trent Bridge and 361 at Lord’s.

Even in the 2-1 away triumph over the Aussies the last time they locked horns in 2016/17, South Africa were restricted to a first innings of 259 in Adelaide, 326 at Hobart and 242 at Perth.

Yes, that 475 against England at SuperSport Park does seem a long, long time ago.

It’s a problem …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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