South Africa v Australia, 2nd Test, Durban, 1st day March 6, 2009

Flat South Africa slow off the blocks

In the first two sessions of the opening day the South Africans' minds were elsewhere when they should have been focused on making a bold statement to give their series a much-needed boost

Graeme Smith wasn't too happy as catches were dropped and the bowlers failed to follow plans © Getty Images

The Australians are visiting another country following their difficult summer at home but it was Graeme Smith's men who appeared to be on vacation in Durban. In the first two sessions of the opening day there weren't many moments to justify happy holiday snaps for the South Africans, whose minds were elsewhere when they should have been focused on making a bold statement to give their series a much-needed boost.

As catches were dropped, as the bowlers failed to follow their plans, as the senior men turned into teapots with hands firmly placed on hips, it was impossible not to think that South Africa had signed off from work when they flew out of Australia. In Johannesburg they were at times flat but in the opening stages in Durban they looked completely lethargic and seemed to be feeling the effects of the short three-day break between games.

Thankfully for the sake of the match and the series, they gradually began to find some rhythm later in the day. Through the strong efforts of Paul Harris and Dale Steyn in particular they collected four wickets and gave Marcus North and Michael Hussey some uncomfortable moments when the second new ball was sailing around chests and heads in the fading light.

If only they could have tested Simon Katich and Phillip Hughes with similarly unnerving bouncers in the opening session. In the lead-up to the match the coach Mickey Arthur spoke of their plans to Hughes, who was showered with short stuff at the Wanderers in a fiery battle with Steyn and Morne Morkel. They felt he had a weakness they could exploit on the bouncy Kingsmead surface but after stumps Arthur said the pitch had been so slow in the first session that a short-pitched barrage was impossible.

So plan B was to bring Hughes and Katich forward and aim for edges. Instead they overcompensated and a succession of half-volleys, particularly from Morkel, allowed Hughes to make such a brisk start that he went to lunch on 75. Drives raced down the ground and there was a lack of intensity in the field. While the square-leg umpire Asad Rauf embarked on a series of leg-stretches to get his blood flowing, the South Africans stood flat-footed.

Ricky Ponting was criticised in Perth for his poor body language as the match slipped away and at one point at Kingsmead the South African field was littered with crockery as Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Neil McKenzie all stood with hands on hips, teapot-style, waiting for something to happen. The whole frustrating situation meant a disappointed dressing-room at the lunch break.

"Instead of chatting to everybody in general we took the bowlers away as a unit and sat with the bowlers and discussed what we had and hadn't done in that first session," Arthur said. "It was forceful but it certainly wasn't ranting and raving. I thought the guys came back very well after that. We've got to understand the margin for error out there was very, very small."

Morkel copped the brunt of the "lunchtime chat" after his first two overs cost 25. Instead of targeting the ribcage of Hughes, as he did in Johannesburg, Morkel aimed for the stumps with nearly every ball in his early spell. It was then that Australia's run-rate really ballooned and Arthur said Morkel had failed to read the situation properly.

"Morne is quite an intense boy, I think he just tries too hard," Arthur said. "It certainly wasn't a wicket he was going to bowl them out on. He probably had these ideas of a bit of grandeur coming in and said, 'I'll knock the guys over and get us on the front foot'. With that comes a major lesson and that's on good wickets, good players are going to hit you around."

That Morkel came back after lunch to create some chances was a positive. It made it all the more frustrating for the South African camp that he had Hughes dropped at slip by Kallis and missed out on two potential wickets when the third umpire fairly decided Katich had not edged behind and overturned Hussey's lbw because it had pitched fractionally outside the line.

Throw in a dropped catch by Hashim Amla off Dale Steyn's bowling and a missed opportunity in the first over after lunch when Katich edged Steyn through the second slip region that was vacant - an inexplicable decision so early in the game - and South Africa's second session wasn't looking much better than the first. Gradually the run rate eased and the odd wicket arrived but centuries to Katich and Hughes and a stumps score of 303 for 4 meant it was clearly Australia's day.

A few wickets in the morning and South Africa might be back on task. The first step is to turn up at 10am bright and energetic. If they make a slow and ineffective start on day two they may as well take a holiday because this match could quickly slip out of their reach.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo