World's best attack brought down to earth
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