Rogers survives once more
Three times, in three series, on three continents, Chris Rogers has walked out to bat thinking it might be the last time he played for Australia. On each occasion, he has played with the freedom that can otherwise elude him, exhibiting the fine balance of functional and fluent cricket that epitomises his best work, and walked off with a score to ensure it would not be the last time.
An admirable century in Port Elizabeth arrived with Shane Watson looming as an inclusion for Cape Town. Beyond this series, Cricket Australia's list of central contracts will be named. Rogers' place for now and the next 12 months hinged on an innings played in vexing and unfamiliar conditions against the world's best attack. At 36, having begun his Test career well after he had given up hope of having one, Rogers is only ever two or three innings away from the edge. When he can actually see the precipice, it seems to help.
"I'm not stupid. I knew full well that I was under pressure," Rogers said. "You can't perform the way I had for Australia, particularly when we're doing well. Because there's other guys who want to get into the side. I knew I was under pressure and that Shane was a good chance to play in the last game. In some respects I stopped worrying. I thought 'whatever happens, happens'. And I think if anything I'd been worrying about it too much. It was almost a bit of relief to just go out there, not worry about it and just play the situation of the game.
"This was always going to be a big tour for the side and for me personally. I've been trying hard. I probably hit more balls in the nets [before a game] than I ever have. Maybe I've been trying too hard, and that's one of the traps you can get into. Not doing the simple things that you've always done. So I probably just thought it's time to stop worrying and just play, and maybe that helped a little bit in this innings."
But there must be a less stressful way of batting your best than waiting until the last possible moment to produce it?
"I guess I'm probably one of the players who performs a bit better when there's extra pressure for some reason and it's helped," he said. "But it's not a healthy thing, it's quite stressful and it'd be nice if I could be a little more consistent and take the pressure off. But that's the way it goes. It's been a tough journey facing good attacks every Test match. There's always going to be a lot of pressure and the bowlers are making it difficult, so I just have to try to get better."
The first time Rogers thought it might be his last Test match was at Old Trafford, following a horrid match at Lord's when he missed a village green full toss from Graeme Swann in the first innings and was bowled shouldering arms to him in the second. Wracked by irritation and shame about performing so badly on the ground home ground of his county Middlesex, Rogers wanted the world to know before he disappeared that he could actually play. A sparkling 84 was the result.
A similar scenario raised its head in the second and third Tests during the home Ashes. Rogers cobbled 72 in Adelaide though not striking the ball well, but found his rhythm in Perth after lengthy batting sessions with his former state teammate Justin Langer. A first innings run out at the WACA Ground provided a hiccup, but another half-century in the second innings shored up his place in the Ashes-winning team, and he shone with hundreds over the holiday swing through Melbourne and Sydney.
That brought Rogers to South Africa, where he again wrestled with his technique and mentality. No-one was more put out by the loss of the tour match in Potchefstroom to rain, particularly when he edged a well-pitched ball from Ryan Harris a few minutes into intra-squad practice at the Wanderers. "If you're out, you're out" had been the coach Darren Lehmann's instruction, so Rogers went, and walked out to bat at Centurion not entirely sure he was ready.
Three slim scores later and he was left to make runs against Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander on a Port Elizabeth pitch keeping low and aiding reverse swing. It was the kind of challenge to extract the best from Rogers' game, which is all subtle adjustments and calculations about his best means of survival. Unlike a few of his teammates he does not decide on his stroke until late, a canny method against the moving ball.
"You have to read the situation, and play to your limitations as well," he said. "Once it starts reversing, committing to big drives is probably out of the question. It almost becomes like French cricket, just trying to defend as hard as you can. In some respects it might have helped my innings.
"I can't hit the ball as well as Davey and a lot of the other guys can, so there's other things I have to do better. Probably using my head and working out how my innings needs to be played, they're probably some of the things I've learned and can use now."
Initially, Rogers and David Warner prospered, to the extent that a distant fourth innings target looked briefly attainable. Michael Clarke may have declared in the aftermath that it would only have seemed so to "people who don't know the game", but for a few overs Rogers was also a believer.
"You can get flat wickets like that in Adelaide, or certainly when the best time to bat is against the new ball," he said. "It's good to be positive then and you don't often say that as an opener, so you try to make the most of your opportunities.
"We had an unbelievable start and Davey was batting was so well, and I thought his lbw was probably clipping and if he didn't get out there we still had a real good chance to win. That was why I went for that challenge but it was amazing how it changed.
"It was funny. When we were flying and the ball was doing not much I thought 'You know, this is not completely out of reach here'. I thought it was going to be a big challenge, and a couple of wickets always changes the complexion of the game, but I though we were half a chance. And then it started just doing plenty. Then it was a completely different game."
The second act of Rogers' innings followed Warner's dismissal, as Alex Doolan, Shaun Marsh, Michael Clarke, Steve Smith and Brad Haddin all perished to the reversing ball. Their exits dictated the course of the match, leaving Rogers bailing water furiously from Australia's sinking ship. "What was really disappointing is going from thinking there was a small sniff of winning to, in the space of half an hour or whatever it was, just hanging on for dear life," he said. "That was exceptionally disappointing. All credit to them, they bowled so well, but that was tough to take."
Tougher still was the closing drama, as Rogers held out with the tail in hope that forecast rain on the final day might be enough to scrounge a draw. Graeme Smith had also seen the weather maps, creating a drama out of an otherwise foregone conclusion. Amid some dispute from Australia, he claimed an extra 30 minutes' play to seek a result, while fading light came into calculations also. Rogers was to be run out trying to get Peter Siddle off strike, and explained his own rearguard thinking.
"I knew the light was becoming an issue so I knew that Steyn and Morkel couldn't bowl but I thought Philander would still be allowed to bowl and therefore he was the challenge," Rogers said. "I thought if I could get down to the other end there were two overs from Philander to go and I was happy for Sidds to face the part time spin the other way.
"To be honest I thought [sub-fielder Alviro] Petersen had been asleep for a bit of the day but he picked it up all of a sudden threw it sidearm and threw the stumps down, I didn't expect that."
It didn't matter in the end. The game-within-a-game on the penultimate day lost its meaning when the scheduled fifth morning brought overcast skies but no apocalyptic thunderstorms. South Africa had plenty of time to scoop those last two wickets had they needed it. Rogers, though, can take solace from an innings that drew the praise of not only Clarke but also Steyn and Smith, who each ran to shake his hand as he walked off the ground. His place is safe once more.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here