South Africa put their best and their worst on show at Gabba, exactly as expected
Their performance on the day showed how huge the difference between their current batting and bowling capabilities
South Africa lived up to their billing on the opening day at the Gabba, both for good and bad.
The difference between their current batting and bowling capabilities is huge. It’s very hard to win a Test with 152 in the first innings, and it will likely still be very hard for South Africa to win here after Steven Smith and Travis Head constructed a rapid century stand, but their thrilling pace attack gave them hope. Perhaps South Africa’s brand of cricket needs a name like Bazball has been coined for England.
If you had set out before play how the day could pan out, it would likely have been something very close to what happened. The biggest surprise came before a ball was delivered when Pat Cummins opted to bowl on winning the toss. The last captain to do so on this ground was Daniel Vettori in 2008 and the last Australian was Steve Waugh against West Indies in 2000.
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But the general consensus of those who had played or seen a lot of cricket at the ground was that this surface was the greenest they could remember for a Test match. However, Dean Elgar had suggested he may have batted first.
South Africa’s batting order is callow with Elgar contributing 13 of the 17 Test centuries. When he was the first to fall, gloving down the leg side during a rather wayward start from Australia’s quicks, it was easy to fear for the rest and so it transpired. Their final total made it five innings in a row where they had failed to reach 200 and the tenth time this year they had made less than 250.
And yet, they have remained in the hunt for the World Test Championship final. What followed in the opening stages of Australia’s innings showed, to anyone who had not already noticed, exactly why that is.
It took just one ball to start. A rearing short delivery into David Warner’s chest from Kagiso Rabada was fended to short leg where Khaya Zondo plucked a superb leaping one-handed catch above his head. It meant that, more than four years on, Rabada had removed Warner with consecutive deliveries in Test cricket – it was he who ended Warner’s Newlands Test, the day after his career changed forever.
Marnus Labuschagne found two early boundaries, both through a variety of edges which raised the prospect of another of his lucky days. This time, however, it was different. Facing the first delivery from Marco Jansen, he edged to second slip. Jansen had achieved something many other bowlers have toiled for days and not been able to do.
In a way, though, the most thrilling moment was still to come. Anrich Nortje, the fastest of the quartet, produced a wicked delivery to Usman Khawaja which he could only fend into the cordon. Australia were 27 for 3.
“You look around the dressing room at our four quicks and the spinner we have and everyone gets excited again and thinks we have 150 on the board, that might actually be enough with what we have,” Kyle Verreynne, who top-scored with 64, said. “That’s the space we are in at the moment and approach we are looking to take. As batters we need to be better but with our bowling line-up to be honest any score we can get there is a bit of belief our bowlers can do a job.”
This is what we had come for. It was magnificent viewing in front of a crowd of 29,306 – the largest first-day at the Gabba for a non-Ashes Test. It had been a long time since Australia have faced an attack of this sustained pace. In terms of pure ball speed, there have not been many to match it. Australia were rattled by Jofra Archer in 2019; at times this was like facing him from both ends without a break.
“You’ve got arguably the two best bowling attacks in world cricket going at each other so you expect wickets on day one with the moisture in the wicket,” Nathan Lyon said. “Think it’s bloody exciting for Test cricket, not just this series but worldwide. It’s going to be challenging and it’s good to see.”
Suddenly 152 was looking more formidable, but the problem with having so few runs to work with is that bowlers can’t afford to lose control. Two days before the game South Africa’s coach, Malibongwe Maketa, had said his team would fight fire with fire; that’s the approach that Head took to turn the game.
As had happened on this ground a year ago against England, Head wrestled the situation away almost before the opposition had the chance to realise. He had looked uncomfortable, understandably so, when he first arrived, was 2 off 16 balls, and was nearly caught at second slip, before turning on the afterburners. His fifty was raised from 48 deliveries with a flicked six off Lungi Ngidi, the most disappointing of the quicks.
Meanwhile, Smith was in the groove. His first ball had highlighted his class when he got onto the front foot against Jansen and drove through the covers. He’s a batter of the quality South Africa can only wish for at the moment.
As Australia surged late in the day, on commentary Shaun Pollock questioned the match readiness of the quicks as they struggled to maintain the early intensity. They’d had a four-day warm game in Brisbane but were carefully managed throughout. Ngidi and Keshav Maharaj had played one game at home before the tour, Rabada had been rested after the T20 World Cup and Nortje had played T10 in Abu Dhabi.
In a sense, however, whether the preparation was right ignores the fundamental challenge. They are being asked, time and again, to keep their team in Tests with very little to work with. When Nortje summoned a beauty late in the day to trim Smith’s off stump they may just have done it again.
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