South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 1st day February 12, 2014

South Africa lack their Centurion spark

South Africa were not awful on the opening day, but from a position where they had Australia in significant trouble the attack could not ram home the advantage and back Graeme Smith's decision to bowl

Cullinan: Bowlers did not back captain's decision

At the start of the third over after tea, Morne Morkel presented Steven Smith with the equivalent of ice-cream to a child: a short, wide delivery. There was no third man. Smith gave himself a bit of room, flicked his wrists and ramped the ball to the vacant area. He looked a man in complete control of what he was doing; Morkel, Graeme Smith and South Africa, the opposite.

There was nothing they could to about that shot. They did not have a man stationed there, the ball invited it the stroke, the batsman trusted himself to play and it was well-placed. For much of the rest of the afternoon that is what South Africa dealt with from Smith and Shaun Marsh. The pair played meticulously crafted innings on a pitch that became easier to bat on against an attack that did not appear to have as many plan b's as they said they would.

The evidence was there earlier. Before lunch, South Africa used all five frontline bowlers including the specialist spinner. Dale Steyn had bowled four overs, changed ends and bowled some more and there was an instance in which this website's Jarrod Kimber swears a field was set for a Morne Morkel's off-side and leg-side plan at the same time.

Despite that, they used the short ball well and it earned them two of the three wickets they took in that session and the key one they took afterwards of Michael Clarke. After reducing the opposition to 98 for 4, South Africa had done their bit to justify both Smith's decision to bowl first, despite his slight uncertainty, and his signal to show intent.

Smith is the captain who has bowled first the most in Test history after winning the toss - 19 times - although he has captained in many more matches than the other skippers. He has taken to doing it more since November 2011 than he did before then, which is the time Gary Kirsten took over and South Africa's attack began to build the reputation they currently have.

Since then, Smith has fielded first five times of the 13 tosses he has won, compared with 11 times in 46 correct coin calls earlier. That's 14% more of the time and with the bowlers' recent records, who can blame him? On six of the last seven occasions Smith has won the toss and put his opposition in, South Africa have won the match. That includes two instances at Centurion Park.

South Africa bowled India out for 136 in 2010, on a day when rain meant they could only get 38.1 overs in. They bowled Sri Lanka for 180 a year later. They won both matches by an innings.

The difference is that this time their opposition was neither India nor Sri Lanka and although Australia's batsmen had given the impression South African pitches worry them, there was minimal sideways movement to bother them. They also lasted long enough to take advantage of the easier conditions that came as the strip baked in the Highveld heat.

That was when Marsh, who was a master at leaving early on, and Steven Smith's patience paid off. They were able to build something because South Africa could not tear it down.

Robin Peterson did not help. He was warned he would be targeted and he did not seem to be doing anything to guard against that. He lacked control and battled to find a proper line. Vernon Philander did not help. His usually miserly fourth stump line and teasing length gave way to a few too wide and a few too short. Ryan McLaren did not help. He offered consistency but nothing special. But what hurt South Africa most was probably Steyn's illness. Although he bowled more overs than anyone else, he could not reach maximum speed.

The sole remaining option was JP Duminy and he was only brought on half an hour after tea in the 63rd over. He stayed on until the second new ball, a 10-over spell in which he posed little threat because he tossed it up generously. That meant the spinners between them conceded 68 runs in 20 overs, without taking a wicket, easily South Africa's biggest liability on the day.

By the time the new ball was available, Steyn and Morkel were interested only in seeing the day out. The eight overs cost 34 runs, with Australia scoring at a quicker rate than they had all day. Fair to say South Africa had had enough by then but that does not mean they will not have refuelled come the morning.

Without repeating often stated facts as many times as a Katy Perry song on commercial radio, it is worth reminding you that South Africa's attack cannot be written off. Two examples are enough to jog the memory: The Oval 2012 and the Wanderers 2013.

In the former England went from an overnight score on day one of 267 for 3, with Alastair Cook on an unbeaten century and found themselves 385 all out the next day before South Africa piled on the 637 for 2 and won by an innings. In the latter, India ended the first day on 255 for 5 and lost their remaining batsmen for 35 runs to finish 280 all out, before South Africa pulled off a draw.

Steyn made the breakthrough in the first instance and Morkel cleaned up while Morkel struck early in Johannesburg to allow Philander to rip through the tail. Do not be surprised if the trio concoct something similar this time.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on February 15, 2014, 1:09 GMT

    "Since then, Smith has fielded first five times of the 13 tosses he has won, compared with 11 times in 46 correct coin calls earlier. That's 14% more of the time"

    No. It's 60.85% more of the time.

  • Xiong on February 13, 2014, 9:17 GMT

    Looks like Steyn is bowling like Steyn now. Very interested to see if Marsh and Smith can get through the new ball unscathed. I'll be well impressed if they do.

  • Dummy4 on February 13, 2014, 7:53 GMT

    After watching Dale Steyn bowl about 20 overs I realized all Marsh ad Smith were doing is leaving his outswinger, unlike the Pakistani and Indian batsmen who were trying to hit it, that's all the Aussies needed to do to survive. Dale Steyn really needs to learn how to reverse swing or swing the ball in to some degree or else you will find it difficult to conquer a patient and technically sound batsmen. Call in Waqar Younes as a temporary coach, with the talent SA has in fast bowling they should really make their strength even better.

  • James on February 13, 2014, 7:51 GMT

    Philander is an interesting one. How does a military medium pacer average 18 in test cricket? It's never been done before. I confess to being totally bewildered. He's ten clicks slower than McGrath.

  • James on February 13, 2014, 7:48 GMT

    Yep, SA will be hoping to get movement in the first session and grab a bag of wickets. If they don't then the best the can hope for is a draw. I will be very interested to see how Harris and Johnson bowl here. Very interested indeed.

  • Adam on February 13, 2014, 7:18 GMT

    297/4 on day 1 is decent on Day 5 of Australia Tour in South Africa (Includes the Tour Match before the testsand T20s

  • Dummy4 on February 13, 2014, 5:31 GMT

    It is definitely not over yet for SA. They have shown that they have the capability to claw back from any situation. Conditions favoring in the morning, they can work over the rest of the Aussie lineup. Not long ago, in the second test against India, they had unsettled the batting on second day and went on to win the test. It is not without a reason they are on top and their bowling is generally considered world class. Yes, the first day without doubt, belonged to Smith and Marsh & SA captain would not have thought the day would unfold in this fashion after 4 quick wickets. But this can happen to any side and to write them off after two poor sessions is absurd. Only one day has passed by and it is best to reserve the judgement before passing a transient one. Steyn, Morkel & co have a mountain to climb but they have required weapons in their armory to unleash a fresh duel. They would be ready for this challenge.

  • Oz on February 13, 2014, 5:08 GMT

    Why do South Africa start every series so slowly? It is surely not due to lack of match practice. They've been playing quite regularly now and are also playing in familiar conditions at home.

  • django on February 13, 2014, 4:37 GMT

    Pretty awful start for SA to be honest. The low crowds dont bode well for their future. I think alot of the Aus boys will want to right the wrongs that occurred when SA toured Aus. We should of won that series easily but SA pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Lets see how they go this time.

  • Mohammad on February 13, 2014, 2:41 GMT

    Not this time. S a bowlers looked club cricketers. Wven indian bowlers can bowl better with the old ball. None of the so called world class trio know how to use old ball. Someone should tell them there is a thing called reverse swing also.

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