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At some point, Australia's uncertain top order was going to cause trouble they could not recover from. Without two days of defiance, or perhaps help from the weather, Port Elizabeth will be that occasion
February 22, 2014
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Late in the afternoon Hashim Amla punched a tiring Ryan Harris through cover off the back foot, eluding the despairing dive of Steven Smith. As the ball sped away to the boundary, Smith punched the turf not once but twice, his irritation emblematic of the red mist descending on an Australian side now more or less at the mercy of South Africa. Smith could not be held personally responsible for this slide, having once again played a spiky innings with the tail. But there was a wider sense of Australia receiving their comeuppance this day, of earlier sins returning to haunt them by way of accumulation.
No matter how brazen Brad Haddin has been, how skilful Smith or how spirited the tail beneath them, Australia's middle and lower orders could not be expected to keep bailing out their batting brethren. As it was, the last six wickets still contributed significantly more than the first four, squeezing 165 runs to 81 and thus avoiding the possibility of the follow-on. It was a fair effort but not a miraculous one, and consigned Michael Clarke's team to some hours pondering their fates in the field.
Apart from the extraordinary pace of Mitchell Johnson, the Ashes sweep of England had been built primarily upon the batting rearguards of Haddin and Smith. Others had contributed, but nowhere near as pivotally as these two - Clarke, David Warner, Chris Rogers and Shane Watson ended the series with healthy tallies, but of those only Clarke notched a first innings century. At Centurion, the discrepancy was again evident but again obscured, this time by the efforts of Smith and Shaun Marsh from the unsteady platform of 98 for 4.
In the aftermath of the crushing victory that was ultimately reaped from that uncertain beginning, the Australians were bullish about the fact that they would not be troubled by this pattern. Clarke, when queried on his top order on match eve in Port Elizabeth, remarked that he was very happy with the way the batsmen had performed in the first Test, pointing to the hundreds of Smith, Marsh and Warner. Yet even amid their own introspection about an opening defeat, South Africa had enough reason to hope that if they could put Australia under pressure, they would be able to clatter through.
'Our shot selection was poor'
A long innings from Graeme Smith's men duly ensued, helped significantly by a St George's Park surface that lacked the spiteful bounce and pace of Centurion. If anything, its characteristics have more in common with those surfaces prepared in England last year, when Andy Flower devised a plan to blunt Australia's strengths on pacy pitches by compounding their weakness on slow ones. Patience is vital on such pitches, and there was too little of that on show when the tourists replied to 423.
The overnight tally of 112 for 4 from 25 overs illustrated a desire to keep the game moving, but the wickets column left an awful lot to be done. Warner, who had played edgily but boldly on the second evening, was intent on doing same when he resumed, but lacking early strike he miscalculated against Vernon Philander and nicked into the slips, where for once Smith held a catch. To lose Warner early was arguably the most important moment of the day, for his exit left too much for Smith and Haddin to do once more.
Haddin's aggression was critical to the destruction of England, though in four Tests out of five he did so batting first, and thus not looking up at a scoreboard showing a major differential to be made up. Throughout that series he was also aided by a liberal allocation of good fortune, whether through dropped catches, edges not going to hand or calculated gambles repeatedly paying off. They have not done so in South Africa so far. In Centurion a premature slog sweep gifted a wicket to Robin Peterson, and in Port Elizabeth a firm-footed attempt to drive against Dale Steyn's reverse swing resulted in middle stump lying flat on the ground.
Smith was more fluent, and fortunate when Peterson turfed a simple chance forward of square leg. But he too ran out of miracles, falling victim to a DRS review that the third umpire Aleem Dar went along with on quite flimsy circumstantial evidence. The on-field official Richard Illingworth had not been convinced, and the bemusement of Clarke and the coach Darren Lehmann at the reversal of the original verdict was plain for all to see. Nevertheless, wickets such as these often fall the way of the team making the running, and it was optimistic to expect Smith being able to conjure enough runs to reach first-innings parity in the company of Nos. 10 and 11.
Bowling a second time, the tourists were serviceable but handicapped by the match situation. The sight of Clarke moving a man to the legside boundary second ball of the innings after Smith's flick for four off Johnson spoke volumes for the priority being damage limitation as much as wicket-taking. Harris in particular looked tired and sore, his wonky knee creaking ever closer to the surgery scheduled for his return home. Johnson, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon had their moments, but could not force a rush of wickets. Haddin's drop of a difficult chance from the silken Amla as the shadows grew long enhanced the sense that his golden summer was at an end.
That all means a major fourth innings salvage job for Australia, an assignment requiring plenty of steel from the batsmen if they wish to preserve their lead going into the final Test at Newlands. Two batsmen, Rogers and Clarke, look decidedly out of sorts, while Marsh and Alex Doolan are finding their way. The third day demonstrated that Smith and Haddin cannot be relied upon to produce telling innings every time, so another batsman or three must stand up over the next two days. Unless they can do so, and follow up more sturdily in Cape Town, Australia's pretensions to the throne of world's top team will remain just that.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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Stats highlights from the first day of the second Test between Australia and India in Brisbane