Australia v South Africa, 1st Test, Brisbane, 4th day November 12, 2012

World's best attack brought down to earth

There will be days when a pitch has nothing in it, South Africa are out of ideas and a Michael Clarke is hard to remove. And they will need to know what to do on those days - something they did not know today

The last time South Africa's attack failed to take a single wicket in a day's play, Dale Steyn was new and Jacques Rudolph was still able to bowl. That was six years ago in Colombo when Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene had a partnership of 624 runs and scored 357 on the second day. That was also the last series South Africa lost on the road.

Brisbane 2012 may not cause them to plunge to those depths but it was a coming down to earth for the attack that has been labelled the best in the world. With only a run-out to show for their toil, the four-pronged pace attack and sometimes comical part-time spinners conceded 376 runs today.

An attack that had everything from fizz and bang to snap, crackle and pop were flatter than a bottle of cold-drink left open in the sun. They had no assistance from the surface or the air but a pack with ample variation - even though they were missing their frontline spin option - was expected to do a little more. After all, even on the lifeless tracks in the United Arab Emirates, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel shared 12 wickets between them in two Tests in 2010 against Pakistan.

At the Gabba, too, they showed ability with quick wickets on the third day. Then, something changed. "When we had Australia 40 for 3, we were being maybe a little bit greedy mentally, thinking it could be 80 or 90 for 5 overnight," bowling coach Allan Donald said whimsically.

South Africa's lapses showed as Ed Cowan and Michael Clarke got away from them in the final hour of play on day two and it became obvious that they may need a holding bowler - which the injured JP Duminy was supposed to be.

By morning they had tightened and managed to create some chances. Morne Morkel beat Cowan's bat a few times, Clarke got a leading edge off Vernon Philander which went over point and a top edge off Rory Kleinveldt which eluded mid-on. The lengths were fuller, especially Kleinveldt's, but they were not consistently better.

"The biggest test for us here would be the test of length and mixing your pace," Donald admitted. "It hasn't really done anything off the seam." For that reason, one of Philander's main weapons was taken out of contention. Often, he bowled too straight and down the wrong line as he was tested on the flattest pitch his year-old Test career has seen so far.

Philander has yet to take a wicket on the tour so far, having also failed to breakthrough in the warm-up match in Sydney and will expect a close scrutiny given his remarkable rise. Donald believes this Australian line-up is putting Philander to his sternest examination so far. "He knew at some stage that he was going to run into something like this and you'd be silly not to think that. I thought Australia did their homework well against him and came out their crease a bit more to nullify the lbws. Ed Cowan, especially got more of a stride into him."

But Donald was careful not to lay blame in one corner. "Sometimes, you're going to have to get those days when you are going to toil. That's why it's a team. Because when someone is having a tough day, the others have to pitch in."

That was probably where South Africa's attack let itself down the most. As a unit, they did not create and sustain pressure by blocking off an end as they have so often done. At one stage Graeme Smith had to bowl himself to Cowan as he approached a century. With the batsman under pressure, Smith may have preferred to use a quick but with the new ball looming and no other bowling options, he had to rest them and lose out on an opportunity where he could have attacked.

When Cowan was dropped on 123 after what seemed a misunderstanding in the deep between Steyn and Rudolph, South Africa genuinely lost their way. Bowling became a routine function rather than an act of intent and they gave away runs at a high rate. Donald said the frustration of trying to make something happen was a contributor.

"We slowly cracked into their channels again," Donald said. "Last night, we just got too tight into their legs and too straight and opened up both sides of the wicket. Sometimes when you create a period of pressure, you tend to look for things and then the runs start to come. That's the cat-and-mouse game of Test cricket. We could have got a little bit more creative in the sense of aggression and in using our bouncer a little bit better."

Where South Africa also erred embarrassingly was with their extras. They bowled 22 no-balls of which Kleinveldt sent down 11, Philander eight and Morkel two - both of which would have been wickets - and for that Donald had no answer. "There are no excuses for that. We police that very hard at training," he said. It's not that we have to tell these guys who are professionals that they need to get their feet behind the line. What's worrying is that in the last five or six months, the number of no-balls has been building per innings. We need to get that right." South Africa bowled 26 no-balls against England at the Oval in July in a match where they were also dominated, for a while, by the opposition batsmen.

While South Africa as a team have made great strides in overcoming the mental hurdles of the past, evidence that they are not completely over the line exists in cases like this. Their bowlers have grown used to success and reward, sometimes instantly. The days of toil like Colombo 2006 are considered so far gone that Steyn once remarked that his "life has moved on from there."

Remembering them once in a while, though, may be useful, if only because the memory stings. There will be other days when a pitch has nothing in it and South Africa are out of ideas. There will be other days when a Sangakkara or a Clarke has more than just the upper hand over them. And they will need to know what to do on those days - something they did not know today.

Clarke sympathised with South Africa's much-vaunted attack and even joked that he would not know how they could have done things differently. "When we bowled, we also found it quite tough to take ten wickets. I've got no tips for South Africa, I'm sorry," he said with a laugh.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Cameron on November 12, 2012, 23:58 GMT

    Watching the first fews overs on day 5 it actually looks as though the pitch has a bit in it. A bit quicker, some variable bounce, a bit of swing and some seem. It could be on!l

  • Cameron on November 12, 2012, 23:45 GMT

    I think it is important to remember that preparing a cricket pitch is not an exact science. They are living things after all. It is important to remember that Australia has never in my memory (30 years) prepared a pitch to order for the home team. in Australia the state associations get the gate revenue from the tests and manage the grounds. They are always pushing the curators to try and prepare 5 day pitches and this necessitates that at least a couple of days will be very good for batting. Sometimes, but very rarely in Australia, this means the pitch will be too good and will not produce a result. The tradition of the GABBA test strips is that on day one they are slow but can offer some lateral movement, on day two and three the pitch quickens up and can be great to bat on and then on day four and five cracks start to open up, foot marks develop and you get variable bounce coming into play. Losing a whole day to rain when the pitch had to stay covered has slowed this process.

  • rob on November 12, 2012, 23:35 GMT

    Can anyone explain to me why Australia would deliberately conjure up a flat track when their strength is in their fast bowling. It makes no sense whatsoever, just like many of the comments here. .. if you think they did it to avoid defeat then I really do feel sorry for you. The Aussies don't shy away from the hard yards and if you think otherwise you really don't know us at all.

  • Peter on November 12, 2012, 21:47 GMT

    @Nuxxy. Well said mate. The Boks bowled poorly to Cowan & Clarke & they cashed in big time. Are they a weak or bad bowling side? No way. They just lost their direction & couldn't pick up their game. It happens in cricket from time to time. They are more than capable of bouncing back, they are still, regardless of this match, the premier pace attack in world cricket.The no ball issue, along with our bowlers doing the same is one of my frustrating issues.

  • Ross on November 12, 2012, 20:17 GMT

    I'm a South African and I'm willing to call it...SA bowled badly, and Oz batted well. SA need to pull up their socks.

    I'm just glad we finally we get to see two teams really challenge each other. This match is likely a draw (because of rain), but looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • sfsdf on November 12, 2012, 19:51 GMT

    Bring on the green decks, SA give us green decks everytime we tour there and we haven't lost in SA since the 1960's.

  • Dummy4 on November 12, 2012, 19:25 GMT

    SA just didn't take their chances. Steyn.... OMG. The drop and the missed run out, the wickets on no balls, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I understand focus drops after long periods of little happening, and fatigue sets in, but it was just a little embarrassing at times. The pitch deserves 40% of the blame, but having Duminy out of the lineup is probably another 30% of the reason why yesterday was SO poor.

    I think SA was very very alarmed when Duminy went down, as he was supposed to be the spin option, esp. against AUS' left handers, in the absence of Tahir, giving the other bowlers a chance to recuperate.

    Philander, Kallis and Kleinveldt were all very average, and that definitely has to change.

  • david on November 12, 2012, 18:24 GMT

    it has not helped that the saffars have had a man missing and that man is also the only spinner picked. that said they did not select the leggie that was in the squad. the lost of the 2nd day did not help them as it changed the way they were wanting to play the test which was score 600 and take it from there. the saffars are not ones for changing mid term as they do like to stick to a plan. i expect it to be a draw but the aussies will try and push for a win. the pace bowling of the saffars was poor. but the aussies did not bowl well. when the saffars look at some of the shots they played off lyons to get wickets. amla out to a shocker but he should have used the referal and his partner may have given him more imput, even steyne was using it before the umpire put his finger up. the saffars should not complain of dropped catches etc. amla was dropped so often in their tour of eng you would think they had bet on him to be top scorer

  • Ramchand on November 12, 2012, 18:13 GMT

    While the Aussies batted better in the first Innings, Its an overstatement that some of the Aussie fans are already talking victory!

  • ashley on November 12, 2012, 17:47 GMT

    WHy does everyone jump the gun so early in a 5 day test match some of the comments after day 1 were boarding on ridiculous. While everyone is still having a go a the flat track, I'd like to remind all that the game isn't over and its not that hard to see SA being placed under some pressure if they loose a couple of early wickets.

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