Troubling patterns emerge for Australia

David Warner was bowled through the gate Getty Images

In any Test series, the dominant narrative is eventually formed after a struggle between many competing players, performances and themes. Sometimes that struggle is brief - in the 2006-07 Ashes it could be argued it was the battle between Steve Harmison's mind and limbs as he ran in to bowl the first ball of the series - but at other times it is a longer and more involved battle.

The last time Australia were in South Africa, the final tale of touring triumph and persistence remained up in the air until the moment Ryan Harris bustled in on a wonky knee and creaking hip to end the tail-end resistance of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. Had those wickets not gone down, Graeme Smith would have retired with a long unbeaten run intact, and Michael Clarke's team would not have claimed the ICC's No. 1 ranking in Test cricket. It all hung in the balance after a three-match seesaw from Centurion to Port Elizabeth to Cape Town.

Then, as now, the Australians felt they had struck a heavy blow in the first Test, only for South Africa to come roaring back at St George's Park. At the time a few worrying trends had begun to develop: AB de Villiers' dominance, Steyn's reverse swing, and the brittleness of the batting order. Helped by winning a more-than-useful toss, the Australians were able to turn that around at Newlands, in a match that ended with both teams utterly exhausted.

Four years on and one of the legacies of that series is a schedule adding a fourth Test on the basis of how compelling the previous tour was. So far the cricket has been of a similar high quality, though now accompanied by a level of off-field ugliness, claim and counterclaim that has led to the two boards both having to offer mea culpas for various elements of behaviour, whether it was Australia's Kingsmead boorishness, or the tone-deaf decision of two Cricket South Africa executives to pose with fans wearing masks devised to humiliate David Warner's wife, Candice. The phrase "race to the bottom" comes to mind.

The cricketing patterns, meanwhile, have begun to take on better defined shape, and plenty are unsettling for Steven Smith's team. First among these is the dominance of de Villiers who, if anything, is looking a still greater class apart from the rest of the batsmen in this series than he had in 2014. On the third morning, the obduracy of Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla against the reverse swing of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood was given its true value for the way de Villiers, Vernon Philander and Keshav Maharaj tore into the touring bowlers.

As strong and varied as the Australian bowling attack now is, they were made to look puny by de Villiers, pushing Smith and bowlers alike to extremes of defensiveness that must have been nauseating for both. De Villiers' ability to find gaps at will was underlined by the uppercut at Cummins that raised his century, and the magnificence of his eye and timing were demonstrated by a savage pull shot at the same bowler that flew flat into the seats beyond midwicket. From there, Smith was obliged to keep his field well spread, but not enough prevent de Villiers from continuing to score freely.

"He's a very good player, one of the best in the world if not the best in the world. I don't think we've started bowling well to him when he's first got in," Australia's senior assistant coach David Saker said. "I think after that he's a hard person to bowl to, once he gets in. That wicket out there you should be able to contain them at the start of their innings but we couldn't do that for one reason or another, one being that he's such a good player, but we've talked a lot about how we should bowl to him, we probably haven't executed as well to him as we have with the others.

"I'm still confident we can have some success for the rest of the series against him but he's a serious player and that was one pretty special innings. He played on what seemed a different wicket to everybody else and hats off to him, but we still think we've got plans we can get him out with, we just haven't started that well against him."

The other significant effect de Villiers had was to imbue the South African tail with far more confidence after their blink-and-you'll-miss-it contributions in Durban. Philander was not only able to accompany de Villiers for a priceless partnership, he also played plenty of sparkling shots of his own, before another two-time first-class centurion in Keshav Maharaj connected with numerous powerful blows, albeit one being an Usman Khawaja footstep away from being a catch in the deep instead of a six. Either way, de Villiers had shown that this Australian attack can be combated, and his teammates will carry these memories with them for the rest of the encounter.

"I think any player that shows up and are prepared to fight it out for the team against good bowlers like that have a really positive influence on the other guys," de Villiers said. "Even if it's not me, I watch our openers operate sometimes, when [Aiden] Markram makes it look easy I get a lot of confidence from that thinking 'It's OK, it's not doing that much'. If I play a good knock it will have a good influence over the other guys."

With the bat, there were to be other signs of fraying Australian confidence and technique, as the tourists teetered on the edge of losing the game in three days before Khawaja and Mitchell Marsh provided enough of a rearguard to keep the contest in the balance. Given the amount of scrutiny he has faced, and also the lack of long-form cricket he had been able to play before this series, it was perhaps not surprising that Warner found himself struggling to keep up with Kagiso Rabada's pace.

But it was also telling to see him looking to be, on a rare occasion, hurried up by a speedy adversary. One Rabada delivery touched 151kph, and when he did eventually find a way between bat and pad, the unbridled celebration in Warner's face was both triumphant and unsettling: the suspension Rabada now faces for his first-innings brush with Smith looms as critically as the stray ball Glenn McGrath trod upon in the warm-ups for an Ashes Test at Edgbaston in 2005.

Cameron Bancroft coped well enough with Rabada, but also showed further evidence of the technical flaws he is trying to iron out while at the same time grow into his role as a Test opener. One pattern that has emerged for Bancroft is to deflect the ball in the air through the leg side early in his innings, though to date he has not been caught there. Instead, opponents concentrate on the channel around off stump, and continue to have success in the looseness derived from a backlift that brings the bat down across the line of the ball rather than straight back through it. This time it was Lungi Ngidi's turn to benefit, from an inside-edged drive that squirted back onto the stumps.

That brought Smith to the wicket for another travail against left-arm spin. Before this match, Smith had commented that he was less concerned by his technique against Maharaj than his concentration. If that is the case then day three provided another case study. "I guess when you're playing outside of the subcontinent, playing spin is a lot easier than anywhere else in the world," Smith said. "Maybe you can relax a little bit and perhaps not get that big stride in that you need to get in India or think the ball isn't going to spin as much and get a bit lazy so perhaps I got a little bit lazy at times and didn't have the same concentration levels that I had in India at the start of last year. And if I have that concentration then hopefully I don't get out to him."

What transpired this time was a fairly standard Maharaj delivery, pitching wide of the stumps, then turning and bouncing nicely for the bowler but not alarmingly - certainly when compared to some of the vipers Smith negotiated in India last year. The trend evolving here is that Smith cannot find enough headspace to bat time, something he has increasingly needed to do to play influential innings in recent times. The sort of speed with which de Villiers cut the Australians to pieces has not been Smith's way, meaning he is using up plenty of mental reserves. The question now how much he has left for the remaining two Tests.

Shaun Marsh, too, is showing signs of mental tiredness, and having been flummoxed by Rabada's inswing on day one, now he found himself chasing a ball swerving in the other direction two balls after tea. A fresher Marsh would almost certainly have left this delivery, and his inability to do so left the Australians still more vulnerable to the prospect of rapid defeat. Khawaja and Mitchell Marsh then formed an admirable union, allowing the No. 3 to work his way into the series with an innings of quality, even if there were perhaps too many edges to make it truly fluent. At the same time Marsh maintained perhaps the strongest trend of Australia's recent results: his reinvention as a batsman of substance as well as power.

But there was one more pattern hurtful to Australia that would rear again in the shadows of the close - that of losing wickets right before breaks in play. Khawaja was unable to cover Rabada's reverse away from the bat coming around the wicket, meaning he was struck right in front of off stump. Saker described this instance as emblematic of "a bit of a habit". A few more of these, along with continuation of the de Villiers ascendancy, could well write the script for a first losing series in these parts since South Africa's readmission.