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Beating South Africa at their stronghold, Centurion Park, is among the toughest challenges in modern cricket. Australia obliterated them
February 15, 2014
Clarke praises Australia's attitude, hunger
Still "bull....", Graeme? For the second time in as many series a proud, accomplished team with a strong record of success over many years has been not merely beaten but utterly obliterated on their first meeting with Australia. There have been plenty of common denominators.
Each time, Michael Clarke's players and the coaches led by Darren Lehmann have entered the series expressing plentiful bravado, speaking freely of their capabilities and plans. Each time their batsmen recovered from an early wobble to put a strong score on the board, before Mitchell Johnson and the rest of the attack have performed with unrivalled hostility, even butchery. The bluff and bluster Graeme Smith referred to so dryly has been backed comprehensively up by action. If anything, Australia have exceeded even their own predictions.
But it is one thing to defeat England at home, in Brisbane, on a ground with which the players are both familiar and supremely confident, possessing an unbeaten record stretching back as far as 1988. It is another entirely to travel halfway across the world to face a better team, playing on their own home turf, on a ground where they have won each of the past five contests by an innings. A ground where their only loss in 18 Test matches involved contrived declarations, a captain compromised by illegal bookies and a leather jacket.
Away from home, against the world's No. 1 team, in their Centurion fortress, Australia's achievement was monstrous in its enormity. An equivalent victory would be to defeat Pakistan in Karachi in the 1990s, West Indies in Barbados in the 1980s, Australia at the Gabba in the 2000s, or India on a Chennai clay-pit in 2013. To even scrape across the line at Centurion would have been a major achievement. Instead Australia left South Africa needing to be scraped off the floor.
However much Smith contended that there would be no psychological damage resulting from this result, so many on-field sights suggested otherwise. Whether it was the captain himself pinned second ball by Johnson in each innings, the hosts fielding listlessly on the third day, Ryan McLaren having his ear bloodied and ringing from a wicked Johnson bumper, or Robin Peterson hopping fearfully around the crease as the match drew to a grisly close, all signs pointed to scarring.
At the same time, Australia can call on countless pointers to rampant belief. From the moment Alex Doolan and Shaun Marsh showed they belonged on the first day by standing up to Morne Morkel's bounce, to the instant Chris Rogers chased and dived headlong on the boundary to prevent meaningless runs by South Africa's final batting pair, not one member of the team showed anything but fierce focus, insatiable hunger and the attitude common to cricket's best combinations. As Clarke put it:
"The two things I've addressed to the group a number of times are attitude and hunger. I think our attitude at the moment is outstanding. We're finding ways to get back into the game, we're finding ways to run with momentum when we have it. A great example of the hunger among the boys was the way Shaun Marsh batted in that second innings after scoring the 148 he did in the first dig, he still started like he was on zero in the first dig, he wanted to score and contribute.
"I think you see it in someone like Alex Doolan in that second innings. i don't think he'll play a tougher innings than that in his career. You're playing against a fantastic bowling attack, the best I've played against in my career, on a wicket that was going up and down, to play like that on debut he deserves a lot of credit. I think you see in my team-mates eyes at the moment they are so hungry for success, they know how great a challenge we have in front of us, and I can't fault their attitude at all."
The mentions of Doolan and Marsh were highly fitting, for their parts in a pair of double-century stands answered long-standing questions about the tourists' batting. Johnson's brutal treatment of South Africa was doubly terrifying for the fact they knew it had been coming for some time, but the contributions of Marsh and Doolan offered Australia the most optimistic news for their stocks of batsmen in years. If that lessens the rush to get Shane Watson back into the team, no matter. Four bowlers of the quality on display here are quite enough.
|An equivalent victory to this would be to defeat Pakistan in Karachi in the 1990s, West Indies in Barbados in the 1980s, Australia at the Gabba in the 2000s, or India on a Chennai clay-pit in 2013|
In front of the best crowd of the match, Clarke had begun the march towards victory by closing the innings after he and Marsh added only two runs in 3.2 overs - enough to confirm to the hosts how devilish a task they would face. Clarke is a great believer in the potential of a declaration to wrong-foot his opponents, especially by giving the openers only the minimum 10 minutes to prepare. More often than not, it works, and it did so again here.
Smith indicated his addled mind by fencing at Ryan Harris' first ball to him and missing. When he faced up to Johnson, Smith managed one edgy boundary first ball, but the second aimed at his hip was flicked unerringly into the hands of Doolan. While the reaction time was minimal and the catch a stunner, Doolan's placement at a backward short leg was no accident - a position devised specifically for Smith's prominent bottom hand.
As memorable as Smith's demise was the restriction of AB de Villiers, evidence of how quickly the Australians are learning on their feet. The first innings had seen plenty of de Villiers' unique invention, creating hitherto unseen gaps with his mercurial combination of feet and wrists. This time around his options were reduced by a commendably disciplined line from the bowlers and the alert placement of catchers and run savers in front of the wicket. One such man, Steve Smith, eventually claimed the sharpest of catches at short cover to end de Villiers' subdued stay.
That wicket ended any semblance of a contest, sending much of the Saturday crowd home early to watch their other great sporting passion, rugby. But there was still time for a final macabre episode with Peterson at its centre. McLaren's blow to the side of the head and subsequent dismissal compounded the Peterson's earlier experience of Johnson, which had him out to a ball that would have decapitated him if not for gloves thrown up in self-defence.
He was thus cornered into outlandish evasive action, taking an exaggerated hop to the off side of the ball whenever Johnson pitched short. In doing so, Peterson demonstrated exactly how difficult it was to take up de Villiers' advice about ignoring the fear of being hurt. Cricket is a game both mental and physical in its challenges, and at Centurion, the visitors reigned supreme on both counts. Just as Johnson is currently confounding the metrics of the ICC rankings, so too are Australia. Who might possibly stop them now?
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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