Smith's decreasing returns leave Australia vulnerable
Four innings and 225 AB de Villiers runs into this series, Australia finally managed to dismiss him by conventional means on the final day in Port Elizabeth. The only trouble for Steven Smith's team was that the dipping, turning and bouncing Nathan Lyon offbreak, well pouched by Cameron Bancroft at short leg, arrived when South Africa needed just 20 more runs to win.
De Villiers' dominance, not just in terms of runs but also the swift manner in which they have been scored - at 75 runs per hundred balls he is almost 10 runs speedier than David Warner, Australia's best - is giving Smith and his bowlers very little margin for error in the field, while also exacerbating the shortcomings witnessed thus far with the bat.
Smith, the other truly outstanding batsman in this series, is struggling to keep up, as South Africa build an increasingly impressive record against him. Though Smith performed very well against South Africa on his first encounter with the team then captained by Graeme Smith in 2014, making 267 runs at an average of 67.25 and a strike rate near 60, his returns have decreased ever since, and he has yet to add to the century he made in his first innings against South Africa, at Centurion four years ago.
In the 2016 home series, Smith fought long and hard in a losing cause, but in terms of big innings, he could do no better than 59. This time around, he has not even got that far, with a top score of 56, while a trend of slower innings has been maintained. From 58.35 runs per 100 balls in 2014, Smith's strike rate dropped to 50.23 in 2016 and 47.97 in this series, corresponding broadly with the home captain Faf du Plessis' hopes to keep his opposite number "quiet".
"Perhaps that it's a bit harder to score. I've played a lot more now since 2014 and the more you play, the more people have plans to you to try to keep you quiet and those kind of things," Smith said. "It's just a part of batting, sometimes you have to work really hard for your runs and take a little bit longer, and some days you come out and things happen really quickly for you. It's just a part of playing and adapting to whatever's being thrown at you, and the surfaces make a big difference as well."
Speaking to SEN Radio, Smith added that he was convinced other players in the team would be able to step up. While none of the touring team have managed to make a century, all of David Warner, Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh and Tim Paine have made scores to suggest they can cope with the prevailing conditions and opposition - an opponent now set to be weakened by the suspension of Kagiso Rabada for the remaining two matches.
"I think we have got some quality players," Smith said. "Even looking at someone at number six, Mitchell Marsh, played an exceptional innings in the first Test match and deserved a hundred there and played pretty well in the second innings here to get 40-odd. But I think we have got all bases covered, hopefully, some guys can step up and get the job done in the third Test match. It's obviously the half-way mark now, one-all, and makes for an exciting second half of the series."
Having made the difficult decision to bat first on a pitch likely to help pacemen on the first day but set to take spin and offer some variable bounce later in the match, Smith seemed to be getting the ideal outcome as Warner and Bancroft rode their luck to put on 98 on the first morning. When Bancroft fell right on the stroke of lunch, the rest of the top six, Smith included, failed to take advantage, and then the middle order was swept away conclusively by Rabada.
"I think we actually weren't too far away. We were probably 75 runs short in the first innings and 50-odd in the 2nd innings, another 100 or 125 runs and things could certainly be different," Smith said. "But I was pleased with the first morning, that could have gone either way. I certainly could have bowled that first morning but opted to bat.
"The way the batters applied themselves in that first session - unfortunately we lost Bangers (Bancroft) right on the break. But those guys applied themselves really well to be 1 for 100-odd at the break. Then I think when the ball started to reverse, the middle order obviously didn't do their job. We lost wickets in clumps, Rabada bowled exceptionally well throughout the whole match. That was the part that let us down the most."
The contrast was to be witnessed on day two when Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla scrapped their way through several high quality spells of reverse swing by Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, meaning that when de Villiers came to the crease after tea, he was facing bowlers who had already bowled two or three spells. The accumulating fatigue was something he was able to take full advantage of with the help of an emboldened South African tail, pushing Australia into a corner from which they could not escape in what were now becoming harder conditions in which to bat.
"It would have been nice at the start of that day - we spoke about trying to get those wickets quickly - and maybe them having a lead of 50 or 60-odd," Smith said. "But 140 was a lot going into our batting innings. I'm still proud of the way the boys fought. At the end, it was nice to take a few wickets and nice to get AB out conventionally for the first time this series. Hopefully, we left a few scars on their top order.
"We haven't got a 100 so far in this series, so that's not ideal. Mitchell Marsh probably deserved a 100 in the first Test to be fair, but if we're getting batters scoring big 100s, it certainly helps us out a hell of a lot. And unfortunately we haven't been able to do that so far in this series. But we've got a good opportunity to turn it around in the next two Test matches."
One thing Smith said he would not be committing too much time to is the issue of losing wickets before breaks in play, something that occurred most ruinously in this match when Khawaja fell right before stumps on day three when he seemed the man most likely to guide the visitors to a defendable lead.
"We will have a quick chat about it," Smith said. "But I don't like to think too much about those things. When you start thinking about breaks and thinking about getting out, I think it becomes worse sometimes. So guys being a bit smarter, but making sure we are just trying to build partnerships together to get the totals we need to win Test matches."
The matter of when Australians lose their wickets is, of course, less significant than how many runs have been scored before they lose them. For Smith, a fresh approach may be needed if he is to make the runs his team evidently still requires.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig