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

South Africa in danger of being scarred

South Africa have become known for their ability to fight back from tough positions, but that skill deserted them on the third day at Centurion as a ragged performance in the field flashed warning signs

Cullinan: Smith should use his bowlers more effectively

There was the din of disinterest, frustrated fans were fidgeting in the hope of something to cheer and even the slow hand clap seemed to have lost energy. The South African flag was held limply in the hands of its owners, the Australian one was being draped over a banister at Castle Corner.

Could anything have illustrated it better?

Just three days into the series, South Africa were so far behind in Centurion that it seems as though they will start tomorrow from Pretoria. Their batsmen had been burnt by the bustle and bounce of Mitchell Johnson and their effort in the field seemed singed by those remains. It was, and the comparison to a series of a similar name is intended, ashen.

It may well be too early to draw comparisons but they are too striking not to. In Brisbane, Australia recovered from 100 for 5 to post a first innings score of just under 300, bowled England out cheaply and then piled it on, led by a century from David Warner. And it does not end there.

The issues England faced ahead of the series opener were experienced by South Africa too, but to a greater degree. Matt Prior was doubtful then with a calf injury, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Graeme Smith and Vernon Philander all had niggles in the lead-up, JP Duminy hurt his wrist in the warm-up, Steyn was ill on the first day of this Test and Morne Morkel had shoulder trouble on the second.

England had a debate over who their third seamer should be. South Africa's selection conundrum was who to pick at No.7, in the absence of Jacques Kallis. They opted for Ryan McLaren and although mid-match may not be the best time for them to question that choice, they might be doing exactly that. Would Wayne Parnell's pace and alternative angle have made a difference? Should Rory Kleinveldt or even Kyle Abbott have come into contention? And, after glancing at the batting card, maybe they should have rather beefed up in that department?

But where South Africa sunk further than England in that game was with a flat fielding effort, sprinkled with fumbles and underpinned by the three times they dropped Warner.

It is an overused mantra that dangerous players in particular should not be given second chances. Warner got his when he was cramped for room by a Vernon Philander short ball and could not control his hook shot. Dean Elgar, the substitute fielder who had only just come to cover for Steyn, ran in from fine leg and had both hands under the ball but it burst through. It happens.

He got a third chance the next ball. It came against Morne Morkel; a short-of-a-length delivery which Warner pushed, edging to Alviro Petersen at second slip. Petersen had to take it above his head and the combination of jump and grab failed him. It happens

Then Warner got a fourth on 51 when he flashed at McLaren to offer Graeme Smith a high chance at first slip. The captain went for it one-handed but missed. It happens.

When something happens three times, it should serve as a warning to everyone to be on high alert. They should know that another chance cannot be allowed to escape them. But with Warner on 106 - albeit with the damage already done - he was given a fifth life-line when Philander missed an opportunity to run him out when he was sent back by Alex Doolan.

That was the worst of the misfields but there were others. The single Duminy allowed through off his own bowling when he did not get down in time to cut it off; the rare occasion when Faf du Plessis could not cut one off in time in the covers, which allowed Doolan the two runs he needed to get to his fifty; the misfield off Robin Peterson as the day grew long to allow Shaun Marsh to punish the bowler he had already scored 10 off in the over for two more.

Fielding is a benchmark for a team's psyche and on the evidence of today's play South Africa are low on morale, justifiably so. Their much vaunted bowling attack could not bring them back into the game as it has done so effectively in the past.

Steyn's first ball threatened to. In fact, the first three overs of his first spell did. He held his line on middle stump to bombard Warner and Doolan with enough bouncers to let them know it would not be easy. Philander started well, too. He maintained a probing channel and teased them with the subtle movement that has accounted for so many before.

The follow-ups were not quite as menacing. There was too much width from Morkel, too many short balls directed down the legside instead of at the body, of which McLaren was one of the guilty parties and Robin Peterson was as ineffective as expected. All those things will give South Africa plenty to think about for the next time they have to bowl Australia out. They need a better plan than the one we saw at Centurion Park and they need to carry it out properly.

Before they can even get to that, they will have to consider what they are going to do in the other half of their game, with the bat. Sometime tomorrow, probably quite early, they will face Mitchell Johnson again on a surface which has shown inconsistent bounce. Chasing a score over 450 may have seemed possible against India at the Wanderers two months ago but it will be a much more challenging, if not impossible, task here.

Instead, what South Africa have to concentrate on is how much of a fightback they can pose. One of the rare occasions England pushed Australia at all was the final innings of the third Test. This is only a three-Test series, which does not leave South Africa much breathing space. The spirit of Adelaide and Johannesburg means they cannot be written off, but a draw from here would set a new benchmark. At the very least they need to make Australia strain every sinew for victory so that their confidence is not too shattered for Port Elizabeth.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • bumsteer on February 16, 2014, 12:17 GMT

    Proteas need to do a "Qasim Omar". Don't play at Johnson, take him on the body!

  • milepost on February 16, 2014, 7:01 GMT

    Wow, the 3-0 predictions by informed cricket followers are looking ever more likely now. Australia are peerless and SA can't do much to stop them.

  • jimmyvida on February 15, 2014, 17:24 GMT

    In my blog after India toured SA when South Africans were screaming for lively bouncy pitches. More bouncy the better. Remember! I said then that when SA has to face good pace bowling, namely Johnson and company on the very bouncy wickets they are screaming for, they would not like it. NZ are trying the same against India. We want green, bouncy wickets. They dug a hole and fell into it. Now they have turned to the disgraceful tactic of negativity. Never believed that Mc Callum would stoop to such tactics. But he has. What is test cricket coming to?

  • steve48 on February 15, 2014, 17:20 GMT

    As i have said elsewhere, it is Mitch 's left arm angle, hitting the pitch in the right areas to threaten the batsman physically, that is causing the problem amongst top class batsmen. They need to get Parnell bowling from a yard or two over the crease and work on their head positions and stance. Boxers train to fight southpaws by sparring southpaws. Nobody left arm is close to MJ's pace, so its either the bowling machine or an overstepping Parnell, and plenty of body armour, or else the same will happen next test; he is not relying on lateral movement, and even a slow pitch didn't stop the problem of the pace and angles against England

  • neanderthal on February 15, 2014, 16:12 GMT

    Brutal fast bowling is fashionable again.Thanks to MJ.Hope he stays injury free for some time.

  • S.Jagernath on February 15, 2014, 15:50 GMT

    @itisme.People say Indians play fast bowling poorly is unjustifiably so.Virender Sehwag & a few others have lead to that assumption,but it is largely not that case.Statistics & technique possessed by Rahul Dravid,Sachin Tendulkar & now Cheteshwar Pujara,Virat Kohli & even Ajinkya Rahane play pace quite well.

  • S.Jagernath on February 15, 2014, 15:47 GMT

    I do not understand why South Africa would not request a pitch with more grass,meaning one that is more moist.These drier surfaces favour Mitchell Johnson & Australian batsmen.Curators in Port Elizabeth need to produce a more South African surface.

  • Gordo85 on February 15, 2014, 15:18 GMT

    I have agree with what most of Hussain said Hendricks needs to be in the squad. A concerning fact for me is though that the next in line wicketkeeper isn't making any runs domesticlly and to me that would mean he wouldn't get picked. One thing I don't agree with Hussain on is what he said about the spgin bowling department as I know South Africa do have some players coming through the ranks. How could anyone go past Shaun von Berg when he is currently on fire and has been doing well for the past two years or so with no reward. I think he is better than Harmer but Harmer does have some promise and does keep on getting in the South Africa A team but yet von Berg doesn't. They do have simular stats though in some areas. I think if Smith wants to keep on playing Tests they need a younger opener to bat along with Smith. The next Test will be interesting and if the same problems are still present then changes should be made in the 3rd Test squad for sure.

  • android_user on February 15, 2014, 14:51 GMT

    MJ - what a match . He has just bruised and battered the Proteas. Just goes to show what raw pace directed at the body can do. No batsmen today is comfortable against such deadly bowling. Great cricket overall. South Africa- miles to go.

  • dummy4fb on February 15, 2014, 14:50 GMT

    They should play Tahir and de Kock instead of probably the two Petersons.. But I will still go with Alviro and drop Duminy.. Mainly because Alviro is a tried and tested test "opener".. Duminy is old and Like Raina for India, a failed experiment.. I would certainly play Tahir over Robin for obvious reasons.. India are the best players of spin bowling in the world.. A poor performance against them should not have cost him his place in the side.. Australia may have lefties, but along with Duminy, He could be a potent weapon.. But then, you will have to drop Alviro.. Play de Kock as a keeper and let de Villiers' hand heal please..

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