South Africa v Australia, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 1st day March 1, 2014

Warner, Clarke get tough

David Warner and Michael Clarke produced arguably two of their finest knocks to lift Australia into a commanding position in Cape Town

When pondering how David Warner might respond to a raft of South African sledging expected to come his way in this match due to his howled down allegation of ball tampering, Michael Clarke offered his opening batsman the inelegant but appropriate sobriquet of "tough bugger".

On the critically important opening day of the Newlands Test, Warner lived up to Clarke's choice of words with arguably his finest Test hundred, but no more so than the captain himself, who carved out an innings of enormous courage and presence.

There had been many reasons entering into this match for both Warner and Clarke to be distracted, even agitated. Warner had earned the rebukes of teammates, opponents and officials alike for his broadcast suggestion of sharp practice on the part of AB de Villiers.

It was certainly provocative and formally deemed disrespectful, drawing an ICC sanction and the sorts of headlines that have followed his career a little too often. The South Africans had plenty of reason to pour on the vitriol once Warner strode to the wicket.

Clarke's problems were of a different and deeper nature. In order to overcome his immediate difficulty - a lack of runs over his past 11 innings - Clarke had to surmount a longer term foible, namely the spectre of short-pitched bowling and its capacity to expose the lack of flexibility in his back.

The man to deliver such bowling was Morne Morkel, a man with no rival as the fastest and tallest exponent of the bouncer in world cricket. Add to this the chance to defeat top-ranked South Africa at home, and the occasion weighed heavily.

Fortunately for Clarke and Warner, the captain performed ably in his first duty of the day, winning one of the more important tosses of his life. Centurion and Port Elizabeth had well and truly established Australia's preference for making the running by batting first, particularly on a pitch not given to early life. Taking first strike in Cape Town on another late-season surface promising little in the way of sideways movement allowed the fast-scoring method preached by the coach Darren Lehmann to place pressure on South Africa, even as they carried plenty of momentum from St George's Park.

Irrespective of the prevailing conditions, the runs still had to be scored, and in the early overs Warner once again too the initiative from the hosts with some help from Chris Rogers. They raised a half-century stand inside 10 overs, prompting Graeme Smith to disperse his catching men and post sweepers to the boundary in search of greater control over the scoring rate. To some degree he achieved this, but he also allowed Warner the room to feel more or less impervious to dismissal, given so many options for turning over the strike.

Across the series, Warner has repeatedly forced Smith's fielders back, to the point that his latter phases of centuries at Centurion and Newlands have been played out in the manner of mid-innings ODI batting. Very little onus has been placed on Warner to split the field or avoid the clutches of slips or gully, allowing him to throttle back into a gear of comfort while still scoring rapidly. Ten boundaries in Warner's century were the minimum to be expected from a powerful opener on a fast outfield, but a strike rate of near enough to a run-a-ball showed how Warner had hemmed in Smith, rather than the other way round.

"He puts pressure on the opposition so quickly," Shane Warne said of Warner. "Duminy was bowling in the 10th over so very early you've got a part-time spinner bowling. It just puts pressure on the opposition captain by how fast he scores and the way he scores. I saw maturity in his batting when Graeme Smith had point back and he got a couple of singles, Smith brought point up and he hit two fours past him. It wasn't like he was just about smashing the ball, he was quite clever about it.

"One of the hardest things as a bowler is if you go through all your plans and say 'we've just got to stop this guy scoring for a while' and when he manipulates the field it is a really tough spot to be in as captain. Someone like a Darren Lehmann when you used to bowl against him he'd manipulate the field very well. Smithy ended up just being defensive about stopping runs, then Davey can just knock it around. He can do that to a captain because he's such a good player."

If Warner was in command of his game, then Clarke was on bended knee beseeching his to comply with his fervent wishes for a score. His early play was scratchy, and when Morkel chose to go around the wicket, Clarke found himself with no escape. Not limber enough to duck or sway easily, nor swivel to hook in the manner of Ian Chappell, Clarke was instead battered after the fashion of Steve Waugh. Neck, jaw, body and fingers all took fearsome blows, the icepacks piling high in Australia's dressing room to greet Clarke whenever he returned.

But Morkel was unable to follow up these raining blows by coaxing an outside edge or a miscue, Clarke's determination underlined by the perfunctory wave he offered the physio Alex Kountouris and doctor Peter Brukner when they jogged onto the field at the end of the over when Morkel felled him. Warne called it batting in the "over my dead body" category, and there was scarcely a better way to describe it. Clarke stood firm, untroubled by how ugly he looked, and with Dale Steyn absent due to a hamstring complaint he was able to endure.

By stumps Clarke was on the outskirts of a century to rank with any in his career, his unbeaten status a fitting capstone on one of the best Australian first innings, first day performances of Ricky Ponting's prime period. Every partnership had been worth at least 50, meaning even the likes of Rogers and Alex Doolan had played some part. But it was Clarke and Warner who deserved the chief plaudits, two "tough buggers" setting aside their earlier travails to set Australia on the path towards the sort of victory that would echo down the years.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Adrian on March 2, 2014, 18:38 GMT

    Interesting that the 'skill' of the SA bowlers seems to have curiously dissapeared. Must be they got their snapping wrist positions wrong for all 127 overs. This conclusively proves that the root cause of reverse swing is the skill of the bowler and has absolutely nothing to do with the environmental or ball conditions (insert sarcasm here). Hang on a minute, doesn't that mean that the SA bowlers got it right last innings last match, but not first innings this match - hmmm - doesn't that mean they execute the skill 50% of the time. I'm pretty certain that getting it right 50% of the time does not qualify as skillful. As was rightly pointed out by the commentry team last night - the ball does not swing in a vacuum - it therefore must be environmental conditions that cause reverse swing. But once again I say, the precise conditions and to what proportions they contribute is unknown.

  • Great on March 2, 2014, 8:04 GMT

    I'm not sure why everybody thinks Warner's comments weren't very bright! Has SA got any reverse swing in this innings? IT is partly because Steyn isn't there, but perhaps, just perhaps it is because AB has been a little less 'sharp' with the ball in his gloves? Maybe Warner's comments had the effect the aussies were hoping it would have.

  • Dummy4 on March 2, 2014, 7:29 GMT

    Got to agree with Great Nate . The reason Johnson got all those wickets this season was that he'd bowl a short one at the the body . Then bowl a couple coming back into the bat just on or outside off . Then a slightly wider one going across . This is when the batsmen . He thought a lot of his batsmen out . Morne just kept bowling short with no plan other than to hit the batsmen . You can be lucky to get an edge , but no thought by the bowler and poor captaincy by Smith .

  • Ann-Maree on March 2, 2014, 7:08 GMT

    I think that Clarke's willingness the wear the short ball is showing that he wants to play for and captain Australia for as long as his back lets him. I think the cricketing public is beginning to realise what Pup goes through with his back - he does not make light of it - he just goes about his business as usual. Like him giving it back to he world's worst sledger (Jimmy Anderson can dish it but not take it) in Brisbane, this innings could endear him to the aussie cricketing public for his sheer bloody-mindedness in his determination to prevail - no matter how battered and bruised he becomes.

  • Dummy4 on March 2, 2014, 6:24 GMT

    the thing about the aussies, they say aussies will struggle without Mitchell Johnston if he gets injured, has anyone forgotten the last time aussies in saffa? a bloke called pat cummins , scored runs and took wickets, wait til this bloke is fit again, then the aussies will have Johnston, cummins and pattinson and all three can bat too

  • Kenso on March 2, 2014, 5:09 GMT

    Warner is not the brightest spark but you have to admit the guy can bat. Hes so agressive and very Sehwag like in that if he gets going the other batsmen can take their time and get themselves set because the strike rate will always be good. Clarke looked good. sure morkel bowled well but clarke is still there and smith is looking dangerous. This game could be all over on day 2. If Australia bat till tea they will have 500+ on the board (they still have watson, haddin and johnson to come). No way SA get back up from that... and even if they do get 500 odd it will take min 2 days so draw will become more likely. Either way SA are going to go a lot longer NOT beating australia in a home series.

  • rob on March 2, 2014, 3:17 GMT

    The thing with Warner is that his road to Test cricket was anything but conventional. He was picked on a hunch more or less straight out of T20 with virtually NO first class cricket on his resume. It wouldn't surprise me at all if he's played more Tests than FC games at this stage. I haven't looked that up but I'd say it'd be close. .. The point is he's learning on the job at the highest level and he does indeed seem to be learning. He could very easily have sunk after being thrown in the deep end like that but he's swimming, strongly. I think that secretly every team is worried about Warner and what he can do. If they aren't they've got rocks in their head imo.

    With Clarke, well, he's just a class act isn't he. I've seen a lot of unflattering stuff written about him recently but that was just wishful thinking by his detractors. Every player has a lean spell now and then and Clarke's having one now, but he's got the ability to tough it out and come up the other side of the trough.

  • Rohanj on March 2, 2014, 3:11 GMT

    Gradually starting to feel better about Australia's batting. Warner and Smith starting to show some consistency and maturity, tho not with the mouth in Warner's case! Doolan looks promising but still a bit green. Rogers is ok but a replacement is needed fairly quickly. The real problem remains, as ever, Watson. Good to finally see him at six now tho. He needs to get over himself and play a role.

  • Warwick on March 2, 2014, 2:29 GMT

    I have to admit to being very wrong about D Warner. I thought his batting was limited and he would never really prosper at Test level, but his batting really is looking pretty terrific of late. He is destined to become a world class opener in my view. Maybe one of the greats. Now, I will admit to not feeling great affection for the bloke, but he is there to bat, and he is doing that very well. Deciding Test, up against the Lions of Sth Africa, on their own turf. Could not have asked for a better first day. Well done and good luck. The Saffas are not done yet!

  • Trevor on March 2, 2014, 1:29 GMT

    SAF have seen how effective a menacing, intimidating fast bowler can be with the success of Mitchell Johnson over the summer. Morne is just as effective in unsettling batsmen with his short pitched bowling but he seems to be lacking in the wicket taking department, something Mitchell certainly hasn't been of late. With age on his side, if Morne can make that step up then SAF will be a very scary side for the next five years or so.

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