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On a slow St. George's Park surface providing them little of the assistance they enjoyed at Centurion, Australia's four-man attack exerted constant pressure on South Africa's batsmen
February 20, 2014
Nathan Lyon: Pretty good day for Australia
Towards the end of a day played at a far more genteel pace than the dramatic and often downright dangerous events at Centurion Park a week ago, David Warner could be seen dancing to "YMCA" in unison with Port Elizabeth's ebullient house band. He did so with a smile on his face, epitomising Australia's determination not to be frustrated or jaded by a slow pitch that took just enough edge from the touring attack to allow South Africa the chance to gain a toehold on the series.
For all the pyrotechnics of the Highveld, the efforts of the touring ensemble at St George's Park were equally laudable for different reasons. Where Mitchell Johnson and the rest of the attack were ruthless in exploiting the pace and variable bounce on offer to them at Centurion, here they made the most of the very little assistance they had to work with, and through a combination of patience and alertness kept South Africa very much in check on a surface devised to allow the home batsmen some respite from their earlier horrors.
There were a few factors in Australia's favour. A cool, overcast day did not overly sap the energy of the four-man bowling attack, while the psychological damage inflicted upon South Africa's batsmen during the first Test meant Graeme Smith's side were coming from a long way back even if they were doing so on the mildest of strips. Nerves were also on display from the two batting inclusions Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock, allowing the tourists to play the sorts of verbal and mental games at which they have been intermittently adept over the years.
But for the majority of the day batting was the preferred activity to be undertaking, as bounce remained true, low and slow, offering time for shots that could barely be contemplated in the first Test. A broadcaster's graphic quantified the difference between Centurion and Port Elizabeth, Johnson's deliveries losing an extra 4km in pace after pitching than they had done a week ago. It was little wonder then that Elgar and Faf du Plessis looked more capable of dealing with Johnson and the rest than they had done in their previous meetings with the left-armer.
Critical to Australia's ability to make the most of a day that dealt them relatively few natural favours was the need to take advantage of the new ball. Whatever swing and seam there was had to be used to the maximum, beating bats or finding edges before the initial shine and hardness was lost. The last time Clarke's men had bowled first in a Test, at the MCG on Boxing Day, they had begun indifferently with the ball and spent the rest of the day reeling England back in. The bowling coach Craig McDermott had rated that start among the few poor hours they had put in for the series, and was eager to see his men tested by another first morning.
They were helped by a pre-match regimen far less chaotic than South Africa's. While the hosts' team sheet was changed at least three times as coaches and selectors prevaricated around the uncertain fitness of Vernon Philander, McDermott counselled his men on how to approach the task at hand. Johnson and Ryan Harris were encouraged to pursue swing, Peter Siddle braced for long spells into the breeze and Nathan Lyon prepared for a flexible role that would be equal parts attack and defence.
Having only a handful of overs with which to make the new ball count, Harris was particularly admirable in his full length and relentless accuracy. Smith faced 18 balls from Harris and was made to play all but one of them as the bowler extracted subtle movement in both directions. One edge fell short of the slips when Harris moved the ball away, but it was to be one straightening down the line of the stumps that beat Smith's pet flick to leg and crashed into his back pad. Kumar Dharmasena's raised finger was just reward for an exemplary spell.
At the other end Johnson's radar had been slightly off, but the emergence of Hashim Amla gave him a revitalising target. There could only have been a handful of swinging deliveries left before the ball would begin to whir down completely straight, but Johnson needed only two. His first snaked between Amla's bat and pad as the No. 3 essayed a drive, and the second pinned the front pad in front of middle and leg. Having glimpsed the low bounce on offer, Richard Illingworth hesitated only momentarily before giving it out.
These two breakthroughs meant Australia could afford to be patient over the rest of the day, as they were only ever a wicket or two away from re-asserting themselves. There was nothing spectacular about the yeomanry of Siddle and Lyon across the afternoon, but they were effective in preventing Elgar, du Plessis or AB de Villiers from moving into damaging territory on a small ground with a fast outfield. Aiding in this was an Australian fielding ensemble that did not slacken, and is still to put down a chance for the series - Steven Smith's snare of du Plessis at short leg from Lyon was not in the class of Alex Doolan's at Centurion, but it was sharp.
For a time, as Elgar neared the outskirts of a century and de Villiers punched the ball wide of mid-on with his singular genius, the Australians might have been stretched for patience and application. But this was the time that the band struck up YMCA, and Warner's moves reflected a team that was still enjoying the experience, drab as it may have been this day. It was not so surprising after this to see Elgar impatiently swiping at Lyon and offering a catch to Harris, nor Clarke rewarded for the introduction of Steven Smith by seeing de Kock shovel impertinently to mid off.
"There wasn't much going on there even with the new ball so it's going to be a hard toil to take 20 wickets out there. It was good to get a couple of breakthroughs, and a couple of loose shots on the part of the South Africans," Lyon said. "But that comes down to us bowling with patience and good pressure. Test match cricket is all about patience, it's a real mental game, and if we can outlast the opposition hopefully things go our way. There were a couple of shots they wouldn't be happy with, and I know we wouldn't be happy with as an Australian cricket team, but credit to the bowlers.
"We had a band out there playing all day and that provides a bit of humour, but we're all switched on when the bowler's at the top of his mark. Davey was carrying on like a bit of a fool between balls there, but that's Davey, he provides humour and makes us all laugh. We're enjoying our cricket as Australian cricketers right now and we're enjoying each other's company, so good on him."
Other days may not offer up the gifts that South Africa contrived in the evening session, and a return to bowling fitness by Shane Watson will offer another important option for barren innings such as these, much as he did at a pivotal juncture during the Adelaide Ashes Test to open an end that Johnson could attack. But so long as the Australians can combine diligence with the light-hearted fun of Warner's interlude, they will be able to prosper on pitches as contrasting as Centurion and Port Elizabeth have been.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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