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

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