South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 1st day

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

Firdose Moonda at Centurion Park

February 13, 2014

Comments: 35 | Text size: A | A
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."

AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla wait for a review verdict, South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 2nd day, February 13, 2014
AB de Villiers managed to survive but his colleagues weren't so lucky © Getty Images

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.

Johnson did not surprise us - Domingo

  • Russell Domingo, South Africa's coach, denied South Africa were surprised by Mitchell Johnson but conceded the Australian quick is in the midst of a "hot streak," that raised the heat on South Africa. "This is what we expected. He is an x-factor bowler. He has done really well on previous tours here and he has just come off a hot Ashes series."
  • Although the pitch did not offer much significantly more on the second day than it did on the first morning, Domingo said Johnson's danger is in the way he delivers the ball. "Because of his action, the challenge is always going to be knowing which balls to leave and which not to leave. He can be quite skiddy and that's dangerous," he said, hinting he is even trickier to face than Morne Morkel. "Morne gets bounce but it is probably more consistent because of the high arm action. Mitchell's is less consistent."

  • Domingo conceded Australia are "well on top," but said his side have not lost belief in their ability to bounce back, despite consistently starting slowly. "Over the last year or so, we've played catch up cricket and that's something we need to address. But this side's character has been tested and we've come out on top in the past."

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

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Posted by SA_Scot 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

Posted by Barnesy4444 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.

Posted by ultimatewarrior 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...

Posted by bowledout67 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....

Posted by ZCFOutkast 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).

Posted by LongLiveTestCricket 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.

Posted by ModernUmpiresPlz 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.

Posted by heathrf1974 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.

Posted by heathrf1974 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.

Posted by Seether1 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.

Posted by mondotv on (February 14, 2014, 4:47 GMT)

@Thegimp - I'm an Aus supporter but I don't think Jacques Kallis retired because of Mitch Johnson? That's just silly mate - he is and was one of the world's great batsmen and all-rounders. Also one of the best players of pace bowling ever. He had to pull the pin sometime and I guess it was just what felt right to him and his body. With the amount of work he did over the years I would say it's remarkable he didn't make the decision years ago. More a man of steel than someone cowering from genuine pace... I'd say it is way more likely that Darren Lehmann breathed a huge sigh of relief when Kallis retired. Because it has definitely upset the delicate eco-system of the SA test team. Like you can't replace a Warne, McGrath or Gilchrist it's even harder to replace Kallis - top order bat with an average over 50 and for much of his career a genuinely quick bowler. They are once in a generation players - he wasn't as flashy as Botham or Flintoff or Imran Khan but the stats say he was better.

Posted by mondotv on (February 14, 2014, 4:31 GMT)

The big difference between the two teams for me has been the Australian bowling line. South Africa almost have a "play safe" mentality pitching probably 4 balls an over a metre outside off - the so called "dry" line (or as I call it "boring"). While Australia's line has traditionally been the top of off stump - sure you're occasionally going to get clipped through leg, and straight driven, especially by such quality players as Amla and de Villiers, but Amla eventually missed one and was trapped in front. SA didn't even give themselves that chance consistently. They did get 3 "bowled" but all were in-offs and Steyn bowled the tightest line of any of the Proteas. We'll see if that "play safe" mentality changes but it seems a bit inbred in this team.

Posted by Aspraso on (February 14, 2014, 3:59 GMT)

JP (Duminy's) manner of getting out was so like KP (Pietersen) against the English.

Posted by   on (February 14, 2014, 3:58 GMT)

I think the key here for AB de Villiers is that he has lighting reflexes - Smith's are clearly extremely good too but his natural defence against quickies puts him into strife against Johnson. He's 6"4 so I assume he has honed his game around getting on top of the short ball at his body - Johnson's extra pace and bounce means that when he goes back and across Smith is prone and has nowhere to go: Up go the gloves to protect the face and we know the results.

Posted by Maroubra_Flyer on (February 14, 2014, 3:52 GMT)

Would love SA to come at Lyon, that's when he's at his best at picking up wickets! A highly underrated bowler. Well done Mitch - there's no one like him in Test Cricket at the moment. Well done Marsh & my man Steve Smith. Would love to see Smith be moved up the order to No 3 (maybe after this series). Our best No 3's - Ian Chappell & Ricky Ponting were always able to counter attack and score quickly. Put Smith there soon and he can then be ready to Captain when Clarke retires.

Posted by Rowayton on (February 14, 2014, 3:52 GMT)

jb633 says De Villiers needs to take Lyon to the cleaners. Yes - well a batsman of similar quality, Kevin Pietersen, tried that in England and look how well that has turned out for Kevin. Lyon ain't Bryce McGain.

Posted by Dan_Son on (February 14, 2014, 3:31 GMT)

JP and Alviro need to step or step out. They've been sheltered for long enough.

Posted by Thegimp on (February 14, 2014, 3:29 GMT)

@Cpt.Meanster.....Are you stirring the pot old boy? Last week you were saying how SA were going to grind Aust into the dust. Last week SA were the best team going around.

Mate, I don't think Kalis would have survived as long as Smith against Johnson. There is a reason Smith Bowled first in this test and a reason Kalis retired before what should have been his farewell crowning glory, namely a home series win against Australia and undisputed World #1 ranking. That reason being Mitch Johnson.

Posted by jb633 on (February 14, 2014, 0:40 GMT)

@InsideHedge, good point. I remember Swann used to pretty much have him in his pocket but he seemed to be getting over the problem. Technically his old problem was that he plonked the pad down and kept getting beaten by the slider. Now he seems to be playing inside the line a fraction too much and hence the ball is finding the edges or the outer part of the bat. I personally can see what he was trying today and it is always easy to criticise guys when they get out in that fashion. I do think DeVilliers needs to back himself and take Lyon to the cleaners whenever he comes on. Devilliers has hammered better spinners than Lyon around and with no Watson to fill the overs they must try and get at Lyon and force the other seamers to do all the donkey work in those middle overs. If Lyon is allowed to settle he will just keep an end dry whilst the seamers happily rotate at the other end. I though SA let Lyon bowl at them today. They must be pro active against him.

Posted by jb633 on (February 14, 2014, 0:28 GMT)

AB is utter class and played Mitch with ease. It is great to see a bowler like Mitch on top form because it allows us to make a judgements about just how good players are. I mean I love Sanga as a cricketer and he is class but his triple hundred against BD was worth far less than AB's 50 against Mitch. For too long in cricket we have been subjected to bog average medium pace bowling and batsmen have piled up the runs for fun. i think in the last 4 years there has been a huge shift to better bowling pitches and more interesting games. I think India produce great pitches and I love seeing the ball turn square from ball one. I also applaud the green seamers NZ are producing at present. I hope sides like BD, ENG, SL etc will stop making dull featherbeds and make pitches that always offer something for bowlers, be it seam or spin.

Posted by dsig3 on (February 13, 2014, 23:48 GMT)

As an Aus supporter, I dont see too much between the sides in terms of talent. The difference is that we are coming off one of our greatest summers ever where we could not lose if we tried. Winning is a habit and the boys are full of confidence. I am not sure what SA are trying to do with Mclaren, Duminy and Peterson though. They all seem to be poor allrounders to me trying to make up for Kallis. All 3 of them combined could not tie the shoelaces of Kallis.

Posted by silentstand on (February 13, 2014, 23:44 GMT)

Shouldn't u be worried about ur own team meansters no one said the saffas were perfect

Posted by pat_one_back on (February 13, 2014, 23:22 GMT)

Following much criticism for their pre-tour claims, Aust are proving their words and looking every bit the No 1 attack. With no real movement in the air, some bounce but not much really happening of the deck it was good old fashioned brute force that destroyed SA's top order. Very hard to come back from 2-days down, AB will need to get a move on, Johnson could conceivably clean up the tail in an over or two. Eng must be feeling relieved & validated at the site of MJ's first 3 wickets. Shhh now SAFA fans, this may hurt a little but it's something you'll get used to (again). LOL, cheeky, early days but very promising for Aust, SA will lift and fight back, hard to see them finding enough with MJ continuing if not improving his splendid form.

Posted by HatsforBats on (February 13, 2014, 21:35 GMT)

Brilliant play by de Villiers, he really has come to fulfill that huge amount of talent he's always displayed. He's at that age where the runs will be coming regularly in large numbers, but I still he (& SA) would be better served handing the gloves to de Kock. Much like Sangakkarra, the runs could start to become mountainous. Duminy & Peterson are a weak link in a great team and essentially playing the same role. de Kock could keep for SA for the next 15 years.

Posted by Robster1 on (February 13, 2014, 21:23 GMT)

Duminy's shot selection and the time he chose to play it was really very poor. A man under pressure?

Posted by r2d3 on (February 13, 2014, 20:31 GMT)

Australia certainly seem to be ahead right now but no match is over until it's over. Australia too have a fragile batting lineup. Remember they were 98/4 at one stage. Had Marsh or Smith gone cheaply, they could well have been bundled out for less than 150 in the 1st innings. This match could very well go the way the 1st NZ-India match went, with Australia out cheaply in the 2nd innings and South Africa chasing a gettable total.

Posted by creebo777 on (February 13, 2014, 20:23 GMT)

Duminy let the team down....140/4 wouldve look better,its funny that the 2 batmen under pressure ( alviro,duminy) played poor shots to get out,

Posted by __PK on (February 13, 2014, 20:04 GMT)

Oh don't think Mitch and the team didn't see the pain and fear in AB's eyes. They just didn't have time to exploit it. Yet.

Posted by   on (February 13, 2014, 19:33 GMT)

That swoosh from Alviro Peterson was just plain fear. Let's hope he fronts up in the 2nd innings otherwise he'll be Johnson's bunny for the rest of the series.

Posted by chelseablues on (February 13, 2014, 19:12 GMT)

Suddenly now no one can handle short stuff - see top order of Aus and RSA. Considering this Pujara, Kohli and Rahane have not done that bad.

Posted by thirdmanboundary on (February 13, 2014, 19:06 GMT)

A once great safricani team has lost it's 2 finest batsmen: Kali's retired and Amla gone walkabout. Give us back hash model 2012-13.

Posted by anilkp on (February 13, 2014, 18:43 GMT)

Firdose, I am sorry to say this, and I guess you will not want to publish this comment; but it is the knee-jerk assessments like this that play a huge part in destabilizing a team. This SA top-order has been doing so well against all the teams that they played recently--Pakistan, India to name a couple--and suddenly you label them as "worrying" after a lone innings against the Aussie, who have in their team a hot material in Mitch running a really hot streak. Cool down all a bit, and you will see the SA team as competitive as they ever have been. Keep in mind that the players also read Cricinfo reports. Give them a little breathing space. Such postmortem so early in the series will only create doubt in the players' mind. Even if the players fail to stand up against Mitch and Co--that's cricket. Enjoy--not worry about--the game that has just started.

Posted by Cpt.Meanster on (February 13, 2014, 18:31 GMT)

We all knew SA will struggle in the absence of Kallis. This batting performance so far by them isn't surprising to me. In fact, both teams have fragile batting line ups; with the difference being that Australia are in a good frame of mind, so you would always have somebody put their hands up like Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith. SA on the other hand have individuals who are not in great form, Amla being an example. In fact, in the last few tests I have seen Faf Du Plessis and AB De Villiers do the bulk of the scoring. These are worrying signs for SA as they scramble to hold on to that no.1 rating. I think their days are numbered as the best test team. Australia clearly have their tails up in the past few months and it's hard to see anything other than an Aussie victory in the first test here. But cricket is a funny game.

Posted by   on (February 13, 2014, 18:27 GMT)

Well written Firdose, we need this belief in our batsmen.

Posted by InsideHedge on (February 13, 2014, 18:16 GMT)

How many times has JP Duminy now fallen to an off spinner? I've always liked JP but he needs to work on this obvious weakness.

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