SA bowlers profit from late rhythm
Maybe bowlers are just not morning people. Both South Africa and Australia's attacks waited till the later stages of the first two days to spring to life and bowl the opposition out. The explanation cannot lie in the weather conditions, the state of the ball or the physical condition of the bowlers. Instead, it appears that, just like batsmen, the longer the bowlers persist with their task the better they get at executing it.
South Africa's initial approach with the ball was all-out attack. The former new-ball partners Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel were used in separate spurts rather than together, while Vernon Philander and Jacques Kallis were asked to perform the dual role of restricting runs and keeping the batsmen guessing.
The bowlers drew edges but the edges did not find the fielders. Phil Hughes and Shane Watson scored five boundaries with edges to third man in the morning session. They also drove 12 times, cut five times, pulled once and scored two classy boundaries with flicks to the leg side.
Those boundary statistics show that South Africa bowled some good balls but could not maintain constant pressure on the openers. Some deliveries were beauties: Philander beat the outside edge while moving the ball away from Watson, and Steyn swung it at pace, but they failed to do it consistently. Hughes and Watson were allowed to pick which balls to punish and their judgment in doing so was near infallible.
"We bowled well in parts. We'd bowl three good balls, a bad ball that would go for four and then two good balls," Dale Steyn said. "It seemed that every time we bowled a bad ball it went for four, so the Aussies were cruising at five runs an over."
On the whole, the South African attack erred in length, with too many short balls turning into juicy, hittable longhops. Morkel, in particular, overused the bouncer and got it wrong more times than he pulled it off correctly. They looked in need of a genuine containing bowler, like Paul Harris, who could simply put the brakes on the scoring for a few overs, but the current composition of the attack does not allow for that.
Steyn struggled to explain South Africa's apparent lethargy in the morning, putting some of it down to simply needing to rub the sleep out of his own eyes. "I started off a bit slow this morning. Like anybody else, sometimes you wake up and you are not up for it. I'm not saying that I wasn't up for the occasion but sometimes your body says to you, you need to take it easy, so Graeme [Smith] used me in short bursts."
At lunch, Australia were already 169 for 0 and Steyn said South Africa's focus was on reining in the run-rate. "In the morning session, we just did not do enough and we paid for it. At lunch time, we said we have to lock in and get that run-rate down." Instead of heaping demands on the bowlers, captain Graeme Smith, according to Steyn, shifted the focus onto the batsmen. "Graeme did say at lunch time that whatever we get them out for, it will be the batters' responsibility to match it and give us some kind of lead to bowl at."
That instruction took the load off the bowlers. Vincent Barnes, the former South Africa bowling coach under whom the bulk of this attack was groomed, said the players would likely have talked about having an "investment session." Barnes explained this as a period of time in which the bowlers would look to "let Mark Boucher [the wicketkeeper] catch a few balls and bring the run-rate down."
Morkel and Philander returned with a line and length that was significantly better than the one they had employed earlier. Hughes, who had scored 85 before lunch, noticed it immediately. "After lunch, their lines were very good and their areas were definitely consistent," he said. He became the first wicket to fall, edging to second slip where AB de Villiers completed an athletic catch.
Smith rotated his bowlers cleverly, giving them each only a few overs at a time, to combat the effects of heat and the frustration that can creep in when bowling on a flat pitch. Philander struggled with cramp midway through the session but Morkel, Steyn and Kallis had all lifted themselves enough to counter his absence. Steyn was among the wickets in his third spell, when he dismissed Ricky Ponting. He went on to take two wickets in his fourth spell and one in his fifth, having settled into a rythm after an erratic morning.
Eventually, Smith turned to his legspinner Imran Tahir again and in his fourth spell as an international cricketer Tahir proved his worth. He had Brad Haddin trapped lbw, bowled Peter Siddle with a googly and dismissed Nathan Lyon in the space of eight overs.
Tahir cleaned up the tail quicker than South Africa are normally able to. With his late burst, he displayed a brand of aggression that adds a new dimension to their attack. Tahir's inclusion means that wickets will come at a greater cost, but it almost guarantees that they will come at some stage. "We're probably going to go for a couple more runs than we are used to but we're going to bowl teams out," Steyn said. "That's what Immi does, he bowls teams out."
South Africa conceded a deficit of just 30 runs, dragging Australia back from a position from which it looked like they would build a big lead. The pitch at the Wanderers is expected to stay batsmen-friendly for the better part of the next two days and South Africa will want to break the trend of teams collapsing after a solid start. "I don't know what would be a good lead here, but we want to take the game a long way forward and make it as tough as possible for the Aussies to chase anything down," Steyn said.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent