South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 1st day February 13, 2014

Worrying signs for South Africa's top order

It is too early to draw any long-term conclusions, but the home side's top order was given a rude awakening about the challenges facing them from Australia

Cullinan: Advantage Australia, and not just on the scoreboard

A shave over six years ago, South Africa crumbled to 63 for 4 against the touring West Indies in Port Elizabeth. A combination of seam and swing from Daren Powell and Jerome Taylor destroyed the top order and eventually accounted for the rest as well. The only South African batsman who managed more than 30 that day was AB de Villiers who fought himself to a plucky 59.

That was the last time South Africa had four of their batsmen out in the first 15 overs of a Test innings before today. This time it was vicious pace and an unforgiving short ball from Mitchell Johnson that sparked the procession. Again, the only South Africa batsman who showed there is a way was de Villiers.

He worked his way to a half-century with a combination of cautiousness and counterattack that could serve as an illustration of how much he has progressed from December 2007 but more importantly, could be an example to his team-mates for how they should approach Johnson as this series develops. For all South Africa's preparedness, even Russell Domingo admitted that they could "never replicate," Johnson in the nets and nothing "prepared you for the intensity of a Test match" and the "pressure you will face there."

Even though Johnson has broken Graeme Smith's hand twice, both times with a short ball that reared up and struck him on the glove, Smith was not ready for that delivery again. Who can be? It is like asking someone to be ready for a rush of oncoming traffic when they are behind the wheel. In the end, he may well have just been grateful his hand was intact when he walked off.

Even though Alviro Petersen would have seen a far less dangerous Johnson on Australia's last tour here in 2011 - Petersen played in the warm-up match but not the Tests - he would have been told to expect a different man. In the end, the ball he got out to was not laced with venom, it was just short and wide and he did not have to play at it. Maybe he was too concerned with looking out for the nasty one that he forgot how to deal with the nice one.

Even though Faf du Plessis knew he would be targeted, it still unnerved him. He was squared up by the first Johnson delivery and the edge fell just short of second slip. Four balls later, Johnson became too brutal and du Plessis could do nothing about it. It does not mean he should not be persisted with as the new No.4, it just every now and then he will have to live with getting a snorter like that.

Even though the first ball de Villiers faced was a Johnson one, he immediately looked less rattled. Granted, it was not a short ball and he only had to get forward and defend but he did. It did not take too long for Johnson to hold his length back and de Villiers got inside the line and defended again.

The others had not been particularly poor in identifying Johnson's line but where they erred was where de Villiers prospered. Unlike at St George's Park, when he was only 22, de Villiers did not play at deliveries he could have left. He dutifully left them, something South Africa's batsmen did not do enough against the Johnson short ball.

His maturity and ability to assess the situation is what stood out about his innings. No other batsman appeared to have the time he did to play a Johnson ball that was directed at eye level, no one seemed to be able to adjust well enough so that two balls later when Johnson over-pitched, they could move forward and drive him for four.

JP Duminy came closest, although he was beaten for pace by Johnson far more often than de Villiers. He gave it away when instead of attacking Nathan Lyon selectively, he tried to do it routinely. Eventually those go wrong and it did. With Duminy gone, it fell on de Villiers solely to steer South Africa to calmer water.

Johnson knew that and he also knew if he could somehow get in de Villiers' way, he could sway the advantage even further Australia's way. He did that when he managed to deceive de Villiers into playing a pull too early and struck him on the forearm. There was grimacing. There was flexing of fingers of a hand that seemed to have gone numb. And there was a stony expression on his face that de Villiers maintained to try and hide the pain.

Unlike the three before him, he did not want to give Johnson a hint that he may have caused a mental scar. That was the weapon used to dismantle England and they helped him by wilting at the sight of him. Whether Johnson has managed to inflict the same on Smith, Petersen and du Plessis will only be known in the next innings or even the next match but it is unlikely he has done the same to de Villiers.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Thomas on February 14, 2014, 10:59 GMT

    @Saffers out there.

    Has anyone seen, or does anyone know, the differing merits of Parnell and Hendricks. ONLY the bowling... Both obviously will offer the leftie variation, but who is:

    - more skilful - More *intimidating*

    This is not a bandwagon thing, I have said for weeks that Parnell or McLaren at 7 would be foolhardy, but what I AM changing to is that Robbie is probably not the way forward. On 80% of wickets around the world, South Africa may have to just realise that they should go pace-heavy...we just don't have the Spinning skill in our culture right now to justify leaving out a left-arm pacer.

    We should go bating heavy, pace&variety heavy, and use part-time spinners.

    It's a toss up for me between Elgar/Stiaan as our number 6, because I like Elgars leftie spin in conjunction with Duminy, then we can have 4 pacers from 8-11.

    1) Smith 2) De Kock (strong V pace) 3) Amla 4) Faf for now 5) AB 6) Elgar 7) Duminy 8) Philly 9) Parnell\Hendricks 10) Steyn 11) Morkel\De Lange

  • Brenton on February 14, 2014, 9:49 GMT

    This game is not over yet. SAf will fight back harder than England did. Australia's top order is still fragile and it's possible we could be something like 5/50 in our second innings and in real trouble.

  • vikram on February 14, 2014, 8:04 GMT

    This is the example of AFTER EFFECTS evident from last 3 home test series of SAF....firstly when indian bowlers bowled soft bowling after pakistani hard bowling to South African Batsman - they scored heavily (Effect 1 : it was easy task to play soft after playing hard) but secondly when australian bowlers bowled hard bowling after indian soft bowling to South African Batsman - they seems broken (Effect 2 : it is very tough task to play hard after playing soft)..... Also shows India is a very poor bowling team & Aus/Pak r very good bowling team...

  • nemo on February 14, 2014, 7:41 GMT

    the first hour of Mitchell Johnson today will determine whether Australia will win this test match or Sa will go into day 5 with a rear guard again....

  • ZCF on February 14, 2014, 7:40 GMT

    The way I see it, Johnson was a little bit tired when AB came in to bat. His first spell(of which AB faced only 3 balls) was so intense it had to have taken the sting of his bowling suffiently enough for a batsman of AB's quality to be comfortable(and indeed of Chandimal, Clarke, Matthews, Chanderpaul, Smith or Clarke's quality who also "hide" there). Even JP survived didn't he plus had a very good strike rate against him, and would probably have still been batting if he didn't try to assert his authority on Lyon.

    Johnson's spell early this morning will reveal of it was a case of him being a bit tired or AB's class. But whether he falls or not, I expect to see him and any of the tail batting alongside, jumping, fending&ducking with equal measure. Bear in mind that Faf also saved a Test more due to fortune than ability as even the nine lives of a cat would not have been enough for him considering all the chances which were created during his resistance( or knock if you prefer).

  • Sunny on February 14, 2014, 6:47 GMT

    The brittle of the SA batting order has been badly exposed by Johnson.Have always said their so called best batting lineup has huge chinks which would be exposed by occasionally. The rock Kallis is gone and this now puts huge pressure on Amla & AB.Petersen, Duminy and Faf have serious work to do to prove their worth and so far have been playing the ocasional good innings. AB,Kallis, Amla's skill & Smith's determination to a certain extent were hiding these 3 but against outstanding hostility by opposition this was always going to be exposed.With Kallis retired,the lineup looks weak with the guys at No. 2,4, 6 averaging poorly. On same llines, they also lost a test to PAK when Kallis went out of form because apart from Amla, AB nobody stepped up against aggressive quality bowling.

  • Xiong on February 14, 2014, 6:33 GMT

    @mondotv I dunno, I think it's just as hard to replace Warne as it is to replace Kallis. By that of course I mean that it's severely unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. Fortunately we seem to be done trying to replace Warne but it took a while. I do hope the selectors don't get stars in their eyes over Muirhead before it's the right time and mess up Lyon again, but deep down I'm a bit worried it might happen.

  • Heath on February 14, 2014, 6:04 GMT

    @mondotv I think you may have a good point about the bowling line. That is SA's plan A and they don't usually have a plan B. India did quite well in the recent series due to their patient batting. However, the Saffers are a tough bunch and there's still a way to go in this match and this series has only begun.

  • Heath on February 14, 2014, 5:58 GMT

    I think because of Johnson's slinging action, variation in deliveries, quality bouncers, and batmsan not recently being exposed to that pace gives Johnson an advantage. He is not ridiculously quick but is awkward and un-predictable.

  • Neriyan on February 14, 2014, 5:46 GMT

    Unfortunately we Saffers can no longer rely on Steyn to keep bailing us out. He is still the best bowler in the world, but seems to have lost about 5km/h in the last 12-18 months. We need to fight fire with fire. We need to get someone like Marchant de Lange in, someone who can bowl even faster than Johnson.

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