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Edward Craig in Cape Town
March 16, 2006
This southern-hemisphere summer, Australia have given Test-match debuts to four different players - Michael Hussey, Brad Hodge, Phil Jaques and now Stuart Clark. The average age of these players is 29 - three 30-year-olds, one 26. It was Clark's turn today, he is 30, and he has had more than one dream come true.
First, he was picked at all. The good money had been on Australia playing two spinners and making the most of what looked like an already worn pitch. The second dream was the wicket. If he could have grown his own on which to make a debut in a crunch match, it would be this one. And lastly, the way he bowled - full and awkward, swinging early on, seaming throughout. In one of the most beautiful grounds in the world, this 30-year-old arrived in style and fully deserved his 5 for 55.
But this is the Australian problem. They can't keep giving aged journeymen debuts in perfect conditions, for it can only cloud their long-term judgment. Australia are a team on the verge of transition, a coach's euphemism for being a bit more rubbish than they used to be.
They are wobbling. The side has been so strong for so long that few first-class players have had a chance to experience Test matches. This, in turn, has damaged their back-up plans when proven performers lose form, collect injuries or are absent. Hence the debut for Clark - the safe, first-class proven option - who is inevitably 30-plus, like Hussey and Hodge before him.
That is their future worry. As far as this match is going, there is no problem. The South African side has become so preoccupied with not playing into Shane Warne's hands that they played into the rest of the side's mitts instead. This wicket is old, which means it has the potential to turn early, then viciously in the fourth innings. So South Africa ordered extra watering, then overnight it rained and it remained cloudy all day.
Ricky Ponting had the easy decision of selecting Clark ahead of Stuart MacGill - wet wicket, cloud cover, the seamers are going to love it. As a result, it was a great toss to lose. It would be a brave captain to choose to field first and face Warne last on this track, yet most seam movement would be, as it turned out, throughout the first day.
Graeme Smith had the misfortune of winning the toss and missing his leading bowler, Shaun Pollock, then choosing to bat and watching as Michael Kasprowicz and Stuart Clark made the most of the lateral movement and tennis-ball bounce. Brett Lee, once he realised he had to pitch it up, also proved a handful. There were poor shots but these are often induced by a tricky wicket and good bowling, and some great catches, especially from Matthew Hayden who grabbed three in the gully - including his hundredth in Tests. South Africa's total of 205, given the conditions, could equal par.
And so it nearly proved as Australia batted in the final session, with the floodlights lifting the evening gloom. South Africa wobbled it around causing all sorts of problems but only collected one wicket. Hayden brought up his second milestone of the day - 7000 runs in Tests - and South Africa now have a problem. Tomorrow's forecasted sun will dry and flatten this pitch like an iron, and Australia are set to cash in.
This day was the antithesis - and antidote - to the absurdity of the final ODI in Johannesburg on Sunday. Few runs, ball dominating bat, a subdued and sparse crowd (true cricket fever is due to start on Saturday, we are promised). But in all that, there is one person who can't fail to be centre of attention: Shane Warne. He didn't take a wicket, he dropped a catch but his presence just makes things happen. He forced the mess-up that is the Cape Town wicket, he managed to volley his dropped catch for Gilchrist to grab, and he turned it square from his very first ball.
But Australia can't rely on his omnipotence forever - they'll have to find long-term replacements soon or there will be a lot of short careers from old debutants. Not all of them can be as successful as Stuart Clark.
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?