First Test

Australia in South Africa, 2011-12

At Cape Town, November 9-11, 2011. South Africa won by eight wickets. Toss: South Africa. Test debuts: Imran Tahir, V. D. Philander.


Australia celebrate Mark Boucher's wicket, South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Cape Town, 2nd day, November 10, 2011
Twenty-three wickets fell on an astonishing second day © Getty Images
Enlarge

Lunch on the third day of most Tests is a time to reflect on what has been, what is, and what may yet be. Here, though, it was a time to wonder what the hell had just happened. Incredibly, the game was over, after 23 wickets had fallen on a second day which, for only the third time in Test history - following Lord's in 2000 and Hamilton in 2002-03 - involved all four innings. And none of this could be blamed on the groundsman.

That it was only the third Test to be played at Newlands in November offered a better explanation. The others, against Australia in 1902-03 and 1921-22, were also over in three days. Reports of those matches make no mention of the weather, but Cape Town is known for its significant November rainfall, which raises the water table and makes for lively pitches. Still, the surface prepared for this match was far from unplayable. The bounce was steep and the moisture caused pronounced swing. But Clarke did not seem to find those factors unfairly challenging as he constructed a century of ripping aggression and unusual quality to keep Australia upright in the face of a sustained assault from Steyn and the fiery debutant, Vernon Philander. Many Australians declared it Clarke's finest innings.

The first day was one of relative normality, marked by Boucher becoming the first wicketkeeper to 500 Test catches when he held Hughes's edge off Philander. It ended with thoughts of how much longer Clarke could keep his team at the crease next morning. The answer was an hour and a half, but the fact that South Africa toiled so long to take the last two wickets gave no hint of the madness that was to come. South Africa reached lunch at a relatively serene 49 for one.

Gary Kirsten, South Africa's coach, took that as his cue to go home and spend a few hours with his wife, Deborah, and their newborn daughter. When Kirsten returned to the ground for the last hour he struggled to believe a scoreboard that alleged South Africa were 72 for one. "Has it been raining?" he asked when he reached the dressing-room. "Um, no, coach," was the gentle reply. "We're in the second innings."

Wickets mounted like mangled bumpers in a motorway pile-up, each taking the shine off the last. The DRS could be credited with seven - which was how many batsmen were either confirmed as out or had their survival reversed. Only twice was a not-out decision upheld.

For the first time ever, both sides featured a batsman - Clarke and Rudolph - dismissed twice on the same day. Rudolph had waited five years to resume his Test career, then had to deal with two innings almost at once. The run-out of Morkel aside, Harris and Watson took all of South Africa's first-innings wickets. Kallis was dismissed without scoring for the first time since the 2007 Boxing Day Test, a run of 56 Test innings. At 24.3 overs, South Africa's innings was their briefest since readmission, and they trailed by a seemingly insurmountable 188.

Australia, though, were to hover on the brink of even greater ignominy, collapsing to 21 for nine, the lowest Test score by any team with just one wicket standing. When Siddle edged Philander between third slip and gully for four 14 balls later, he at least nudged them past New Zealand's 26, Test cricket's nadir.

Their implosion had begun with the third ball of the innings, when Watson was hit in front by Steyn but decided against reviewing the decision; gallingly, replays showed the new ball climbing over the top. That was the cue for Philander - seaming it in both directions - and Morkel to swarm all over them. Hughes edged a lifter to send Australia into tea at 13 for three; when they came back Hussey wafted airily at the first ball, and merry hell broke loose. When the last pair came together, eight wickets had gone down for ten either side of the break. Siddle and Lyon more than doubled the score, but 47 was still their worst since 1902. Lyon's 14 made him the eighth No. 11 in Test history to top- score in an innings, and the third at Newlands. Philander, who showed himself to be a snorting strike bowler, claimed five for 15, and eight in the match. Only four South Africans had done better on debut.

The first 20 overs of the day and the last 17 had witnessed only three wickets, yet it was still the best day for bowling in 110 years of Test cricket; on only three previous occasions had more wickets fallen in a day (the most was 27 in the 1888 Ashes Test at Lord's). The result of it all was that South Africa had salvaged a target of 236 to win, of which 155 remained when Smith and Amla returned on the third morning. They were in a fine position, but needed to surpass the biggest first-innings deficit a South African side had previously rerouted into victory. At 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 2011, they were 111 for one. Eleven minutes later, they stood 111 runs away from a remarkable triumph. The stadium announcers asked the crowd to stand on one leg, just in case.

Smith batted like a man keen to atone for abandoning his nation's World Cup post- mortem. Amla was dropped twice, but remained steady. Both scored hundreds - Smith's was his fourth in the fourth innings of a Test: not one of his 23 Test hundreds had come in defeat. And then, one of cricket's most helter-skelter games was over - in scarcely more than a thousand balls. Blink and you may have missed it. Just ask Kirsten.

Man of the Match: V. D. Philander. Close of play: First day, Australia 214-8 (Clarke 107, Siddle 0); Second day, South Africa 81-1 (Smith 36, Amla 29).

© John Wisden & Co.