South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 3rd day February 14, 2014

Doolan ice extinguishes South Africa fire

Against a revved-up Dale Steyn, on a lively pitch, after the loss of an early wicket, Alex Doolan turned a nervous period into seemingly inevitable domination and vindicated his selection

#politeenquiries: Perhaps South Africa should pick 11 fielders

When the story of this day at Centurion is told in future years, it will be summarised in terms of sustained dominance by Australia and slovenly fielding by South Africa. On the scorecard it will look as though the tourists came out to bat with a 191-run lead and marched to a decisive advantage against dispirited bowling and shoddy out-cricket, from opponents humbled by Mitchell Johnson. It will look inevitable.

Yet for 25 minutes before lunch there was very little guaranteed about Australia's progress. The loss of Chris Rogers to Dale Steyn's first ball, dragging awkwardly onto the stumps, caused an explosion of emotion from the bowler and the crowd. Here were the world's best team, wounded in the first innings but willing themselves to fight back. Here was an ambitious touring side with plenty of players able to recall the chaos of Cape Town in 2011, when a vast lead of 188 became an inadequate target of 236 quicker than you could say 47 all out.

Genuine nerves were glimpsed in these moments, the kind of interlude on which a match can turn. Australia's vice-captain and Cape Town veteran Brad Haddin aspired to mastery of the "big moments" before the series began, and one such juncture had arrived. David Warner, for all his aggressive intent and broad array of shots, looked tense and unsure in this knowledge. Unable to score many runs before the interval, almost all he could do was get out and, through inside edges or wafts outside off stump, he nearly did.

The man to calm Australia's nerves and make an afternoon's domination possible could not be Rogers and it would not be Warner. Instead, it was a 28-year-old debutant with an elegant, upright style and a first-class record hinting at promise, but nothing more - Alex Doolan. His moment of import arrived after a long period of grooming for this very role, confronting a fiery paceman on a lively pitch after the loss of an early wicket.

Australia's selectors have had their eye on Doolan for quite some time, and so too had others at important points in the domestic system. Chief among those, of course, was Ricky Ponting, who had in Doolan's earliest days been the one to tip him out of Tasmania's Sheffield Shield XI whenever he returned from national duty. Taken by his talent but irritated by his tendency for pretty 20s and 30s, Ponting worked closely with Doolan in 2012-13, adding considerable steel to the silk he had always possessed.

During that summer, Doolan had enjoyed a fruitful first encounter with the South Africans, caressing his way to 161 not out for Australia A at the SCG. The pitch was dead and the bowling preparatory, but Doolan's ease was apparent. After he made further runs for Tasmania at the MCG against Victoria, partnering Ponting in a stand where the pupil lost little by comparison to the teacher, it seemed a Test call-up could not be far away.

But circumstances and schedules created difficulties for Doolan, who went from the Tasmanian top three to the fringes of the Melbourne Renegades squad in the Big Bash League. Rob Quiney and Phillip Hughes were preferred in the home Tests. By the time Doolan returned to the Shield, the earlier form had dissipated, and his scores did not stand out during the winter A tours of the UK and southern Africa.

Nonetheless, Doolan remained in the thoughts of the national selector, John Inverarity, the coach, Darren Lehmann, and other senior figures within the team. A sublime century to take Tasmania to a fourth-innings target against New South Wales early in the summer had the added benefit of occurring under the nose of Michael Clarke, who could not help but be impressed. Throughout the Ashes he was next in line to join the top six.

He turned heads in vignettes, whether it be cracking Stuart Broad through cover off the back foot for Australia A at Bellerive, or driving Peter Siddle's outswinger with aristocratic nonchalance in practice at the Wanderers. All he lacked was a substantial score. Doolan's fluent method can recall that of the former England captain Michael Vaughan at times, most particularly in the flourish of his swivel-pull. Another similarity can be found in the modest first-class record Vaughan carried into Test cricket, where he improved significantly upon it.

In South Africa, Doolan was soon aware of his likely place in the team. He batted at No. 3 in the nets and in centre-wicket sessions, and had his family on hand for the moment when Andrew Symonds handed him the baggy green cap. On day one he offered another vignette - moving smoothly along to 27 before picking out midwicket. More was required, and when Rogers perished Doolan's moment presented itself.

In as far as it is possible to do so in five balls, the way Doolan countered the rest of Steyn's opening over vindicated his identification and selection. An organised technique, given starch by the movement he has often had to counter at Bellerive, brought an instant sense of calm - ice to scotch South African fire. There was no hair-raising gallop down the other end for a single, no flashy shot scorched through the field in a blur of nervous energy. Instead, Doolan offered either a raised bat or sound defence, absorbing the ball at its newest and hardest on a surface not averse to playing tricks.

Steyn, sensing an opponent comfortable against his away swing, clicked up a gear or two and hurled down his skiddy short ball, an older relative of the missile that ruined Craig Cumming. Doolan took it on the body. If it hurt, he did not show it. If it scrambled his thoughts, he soon regathered them. To follow up, Steyn pitched fuller, seeking the pads or the stumps, but was met by a deft leg-side deflection that took Doolan off the mark. By lunch he had faced 21 balls, and scored 3. As importantly, he radiated assurance, all clean lines and unhurried judgments. His fellow batsmen exhaled.

A corner in the match had been turned, and the afternoon played out in a way that will now look straightforward. Warner pounced, South Africa sagged, and Doolan progressed beyond a cameo to the outskirts of a century. Though Graeme Smith twice resorted unsuccessfully to the DRS, Doolan did not offer a single chance. All 12 of his boundaries, and one smooth six down the ground, were struck with the same rhythmic blade he had used to disarm Steyn.

His exit for 89, a tired attempt to cut JP Duminy, brought an anguished reaction. For the first time all day Doolan had lost some of his cool. In the calm of the dressing room he was irritated not to raise three figures, the third Australian after Bill Ponsford and Shaun Marsh to do so on debut at No. 3. Later on, with the help of grateful team-mates, he will come to appreciate the significance of this innings. Australia's domination of day three will in years to come look like it was inevitable. But that is only because Doolan's calm had made it so.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • James on February 16, 2014, 9:10 GMT

    @ScottStevo: Did you watch the innings? In his first innings he was free scoring, this time the bowlers were on top and he had to ride it out and he did it beauttifully, that's what you want from your no.3

    Make no mistake, he can put the foot on the pedal when required, did you not see him come down the track and smash RP over his head for a huge six and multiple fours? Then when pitched up he played a beautiful cover drive, there is no real glaring weakness and you have to remember that this is his FIRST GAME! He would have been nervous and can get better.

  • Terry on February 16, 2014, 5:30 GMT

    ScottStevo, unfair to suggest that Doolan would not have taken over the role of strokemaker if Warner had been dismissed instead of Rogers, because he most certainly would have. As Mervo intimated Doolan is an intelligant batsman who has been groomed by the best in Ponting to take over at 3. Anyone, when batting with Warner has to take the backseat and provide stability, can't have both batsmen taking unnecessary risks at that stage of an innings, and that is how Warner does/should continue to play. Doolan is a very accomplished strokemaker as will be proven later on in his Test career. And I will be very surprised if Watson is brought in for the next game, as Rogers deserves a little of that faith and loyalty you spoke about before. Watson has had more than his fair shre of that.

  • Tony on February 16, 2014, 3:20 GMT

    Agree totally with popcorn. Leave 3,4,5 and 6 as with Doolan, Marsh, Clarke and Smith because this is where each of these players they should bat. Doolan and Marsh have earned their chance to establish themselves. Then pick either Rogers or Watson at No. 1. Watson is not suited to No. 6 as he is not nimble enough on his feet. Watson's batting is well past his best anyway. Dropping Doolan would be a crime and a backward step.

    Eventually, perhaps the next Oz summer I would like to see Jordan Silk as opener. He would be the ideal partner for Warner. We should then allow an all-rounder to develop at No.6 over the next 2 years in Shield cricket. When either Faulkner or perhaps Mitchell Marsh develops in Shield cricket, then select them at No. 6. Also keep your eyes on Joe Burns of Qld as perhaps the best young batsmen in Sheffield Shield.

  • Scott on February 15, 2014, 11:45 GMT

    @andrew-schulz, completely agree. If it had been Warner who departed and it was Rogers and Doolan batting together, we'd still be batting now, and around 100 runs less on the board! Watson's bowling is already being missed too. Although, Warner's seam up was pretty tidy! I have to admit, when I saw him warming up to bowl I had a good chuckle! Watson WILL play in the next test, I have no doubt of that. I kind of like @ModernUmpiresPlz's team with Marsh opening, Doolan at 3 and Watson to 6 too. Not a bad shout.

  • Scott on February 15, 2014, 11:41 GMT

    @ashmaugham, it's not ageism (and in sport, who cares if it is), it's reality. Rogers was always a stop gap measure when he was selected. He's done well for us, but I'll be surprised if he's retained after this series. Hughes obviously can play test cricket as his twin tons in SA would suggest. He just needed to be shown a little faith and loyalty. Instead, we brushed a youngster aside and hammered his confidence. I have no doubt that Hughes will play for Aus and score runs.

  • andrews on February 15, 2014, 9:59 GMT

    Geez Dan and popcorn, high praise on the basis of one innings. I thought Warner, not Doolan, took the game away from South Africa. Doolan had no fluency, wasted a lot of poor deliveries ( one scoring shot in his first 30 balls, wasn't it), and played some dismal wafts in that time. But a good knock in the end. And popcorn, the fact that there will be less help for seamers in the next two Tests is more reason to include Watson, not less. No one seems to see the massive role he played in the bowling attack on good decks in the Ashes.

  • ash on February 15, 2014, 7:58 GMT

    Sorry, I just don't understand the suggestion that Phil Hughes should replace Chris Rogers. Phil does not have the technique for Test cricket. He has been in and out of the Aus Team - give Chris a few more chances. "Not suited for the long term" smacks of ageism.

  • Xiong on February 15, 2014, 7:08 GMT

    @plymuth12 The thing is I really don't like the idea of Hughes and Warner together. They both like to play square of the wicket and that's dangerous against a new ball. Seems like a recipe for a lot of 2/not many's in the first innings. I'm obviously unsure what the selectors are thinking for when Rogers retires or is dropped, but I still imagine they would go with another grafter rather than a dasher.

  • sai on February 15, 2014, 6:31 GMT

    finally australia have found an ideal squad though by the end of the series i reckon well see some changes. first of all rogers whose not suited for long term responsibilities will be replaced by hughes. 2nd marsh in all experience is probably gonna lose form and be replaced by joe burns,cooper or jordan silk. watson is too overared at the test level.his statss show hisv tendency to score big in the 2nd innnings when setting targets at minimal pressure

  • David on February 15, 2014, 6:10 GMT

    Australia need a fourth seamer if they want to manage Harris and allow MJ to be the short spell beast that they want him to be. Should SA try to set up wickets that may suit Philander then Watson or Henriques are the type of bowler that will also do well. Who says Marsh or Doolan would have to go to make way for Watson. Rogers, even during the ashes, has looked abominable against the short ball (bouncy wickets). Watson would do no worse than him and add fielding and bowling skill. Replacing Rogers would rule out Henriques.

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