South Africa v Australia, 4th Test, 1st day, Johannesburg March 30, 2018

What Australia lost, and what they gained

A hard-nosed battle without sledging left stump mics redundant and provided glimpses of new a Australia

© AFP

There was no Steven Smith. Australia's captain until nearly a week ago is no longer in South Africa, having made a tearful return home and plans to join his fiancee Danni in New York. He was replaced by Tim Paine at the toss and by Pete Handscomb both at second slip and at No. 4 in the order. The novelty change-up spin over was provided by Matt Renshaw. One day, eventually, Smith hopes to return.

There was no David Warner. The former deputy was in Sydney, pondering what he might say and do in response to the bans he, Smith and Cameron Bancroft have been handed by Cricket Australia, though they are all allowed to challenge the verdicts and penalties in front of a code of behaviour commissioner. Joe Burns returned as the senior opening batsman, having once been Warner's junior, while much of the ball shining duty was taken up by a bowler, Pat Cummins. Few expect Warner to play another Test.

There was no Cameron Bancroft. Back home in Perth, he has been surrounded by support from the Western Australian Cricket Association, from the moment the coach Justin Langer met him at the airport and the chief executive Christina Matthews accompanied him at a mea culpa press conference. That day he spoke of giving up his spot "for free" by his actions, and it was Renshaw who reclaimed a top order berth as a result. A little less excited by the opportunity was a ducking Handscomb at short leg. Bancroft, should he get back into the team, is more than welcome to it.

There was no captain's blazer. Smith and deputy Warner were the only two members of the touring party to own one, and there was not enough time to fit out the new man Tim Paine. No-one could quite remember the last time an Australian captain had not worn it to the toss. A photo exists of Allan Border walking to the middle of The Oval with David Gower in shirtsleeves as long ago as 1985. As he had done after the end of the Newlands Test, Paine said the right things. "A difficult week, we've focused internally," he said. "We've spoken about looking after each other, and we're privileged to play a Test for Australia." Maybe the blazer doesn't matter that much after all.

There was, for vastly different reasons, no Mitchell Starc. A stress fracture of the tibia - the underlying reason for the shin soreness that had threatened his participation in Cape Town - forced him out of the Test and also the IPL. Starc has trouble completing Test series, and seems at his best when prepared and tapered for specific assignments like a World Cup or an Ashes tour. His absence allowed for Chadd Sayers to make his debut after years at the fringes, something to which Adam Voges, his cap presenter, could relate. Starc will next be seen in England in June, by which time Australia will have a new coach to replace Darren Lehmann.

There were no dropped catches. Sayers and Renshaw both took good ones at mid off, and Handscomb flew for another at second slip that had the effect of seeming, just for a fraction of a second, as though Smith was still out there. The Australians persisted admirably having lost the toss, with two jetlagged players among their number, whatever Shane Warne claimed about Sayers from the commentary box. Glenn Maxwell, who would have made it a third late arrival, might have added some athleticism.

There was, as far as it was possible to tell, no sledging. Those extra sensitive SuperSport stump microphones picked up plenty of gee-up chat by Paine behind the stumps and encouragement among other fielders, but nothing so crass as had been seen in the first three Tests of the series, or during the home Ashes summer. With no incriminating dialogue to catch in the middle, SuperSport may have to turn up their effects microphones near the boundary to get something else, "he can't bowl and he can't throw" maybe.

But there was, instead, a pre-match handshake between all players following the national anthems, a powerful gesture in the circumstances and the brainchild of Paine. Australian sides in the Darren Lehmann era had made a point of not being at all friendly to opponents until the end of a series, lest the humanity make his players less capable of playing the attack dog role on the field. This act, with the assent of Faf du Plessis, should become a new custom.

There was a new captain in Paine. Not even part of the Tasmanian team five months ago, but steeped in the strong and notably less-aggressive culture fostered by the Tigers under the leadership of George Bailey. While rotating bowlers and setting fields was part of the job, Paine has faced a far steeper task in trying to assemble a team from the depths of this week's events, and the jumble of emotions all must still feel. Given the swings and roundabouts of his own career, to the point that he very nearly quit Tasmania to work for a bat manufacturer last winter, Paine brings a very different and more rounded perspective to this job than his predecessor. He believes he will be doing it for a while, but as a collaborator rather than a dictator.

There was, in glimpses, a new Australia. It was personified by the persistence of Pat Cummins, who as in Cape Town tilted the day back from a place of South African domination by winkling out Aiden Markram and then totally befuddling du Plessis with sharp and well disguised reverse swing. Sayers, too, offered something new, swinging and seaming both new balls more even than Vernon Philander, with the promise that his control will improve once the first day nerves subside. He provided, too late, a clue that the best way to get AB de Villiers is not to blast him but deceive him with late movement. Cummins, Sayers and their teammates might have gained some small ideas about how to tackle England in England next year.

There is, after all the odium, something to look forward to.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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