The Momentum Shifts to South Africa For Cape Town
In the first test of the South Africa/Australia 2014 series at Centurion, Mitchell Johnson continued where he left off against the hapless English. Much to the surprise of the fans of test cricket’s top ranked team, the South Africans were cornered and subdued in much the same way as Australia’s Ashes opponents.
Only AB de Villiers really showed the ability and willingness to offer a serious response. Whereas most others were swept away by Johnson’s searing pace and uncompromising aggression, de Villiers, scoring 91 in the first innings and 48 in the second, seemed quite up to the task of repelling the left-hander’s thunderbolts. The gap between he and the other batsmen, with the exception of Amla who thrived for a brief period despite having his grill rearranged, was as yawning as that between a kindergartner and a graduate student. Nobody else seemed up to the task of blocking Australia’s path.
Australia’s triumph in the first test was so overwhelming that anyone who paid little more than scant attention would, understandably, have been convinced that there would be no resurgence by the hosts when the action reached Port Elizabeth. Like England at Brisbane, it was felt that the mental scars inflicted ran much too deep to be thrown off in just a matter of days. Further, the fact that three changes were made to the team that reported for duty at St. George’s Park, one of which was due to a concussion suffered by Ryan McLaren from a Johnson blow to the temple, could not have been helpful to team morale.
No matter what captain Graeme Smith and his players said, the momentum was with the visitors, and we had all seen how ruthless they could be. Australia’s boot was now firmly pressed on South Africa’s neck and chances of them breaking free were slim.
But break free they did. For a while, on the first morning at Port Elizabeth, it seemed that all would remain as it was. Two South African wickets were removed for just 11 runs, and though it was clear that Johnson’s short-pitched attack would be less fruitful, it seemed he could be almost as effective by employing a fuller length as he did at Adelaide during the Ashes. Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis added over a hundred, however, and showed that Johnson’s sting, highly potent in Centurion and still an irritant, could now be neutralized on a surface lacking in pace and bounce.
More heft was added by the incomparable de Villiers and JP Duminy, who must have come into the match fearing for his spot. Their centuries brought South Africa to 423, more than they scored in both innings of the first test.
In a way, Port Elizabeth was a complete reversal of Centurion. Johnson could not revive his role as enforcer; Morne Morkel took that job – at least in the first innings. Touching speeds of up to 152 KPH, it was his turn to clang helmets and to have batsmen ducking and weaving, and he did much more damage than figures of 3/63 suggested.
Were it not for Dale Steyn’s masterful display of reverse swing bowling, we would have come away from this game thinking its brightest period of play was Amla’s batting on the third day, especially while de Villiers kept him company.
They came together with the score on 112/3, after du Plessis was caught behind off Peter Siddle and lasted until de Villiers edged a Johnson bouncer through to the wicketkeeper at 167. It wasn’t long enough for the gathering at St Georges Park, nor for those watching on television, for here was batsmanship at it’s most elegant and best, against bowling of high quality. De Villiers was dismissed for only 29, while Amla, who slept on 93, went on to 127 on the fourth day.
The union yielded only 55 runs, but the two batsmen are amongst the most attractive and most prolific in the game, and for the all too brief period they were together, the entertainment value was astronomical. Amla’s driving through the covers off the back-foot revived memories of the Jamaican Lawrence Rowe, perhaps the most elegant batsman who ever lived, while his wristwork through leg recalled the more recent VVS Laxman. De Villiers made just 29, but his five boundaries contributed substantially to the day’s thrills.
Australia might have harboured dreams of achieving what would have been a world record total of 448 to win. Chris Rogers and David warner combined for 126 before being parted, and there still would have been some hope at 153/3 with Michael Clarke and a fluent Rogers in occupation. But that hope was completely extinguished by Steyn’s reverse-swinging assault. Scarcely can there have been a finer exhibition of the art made famous by Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, and the innings fell over in a heap for 216.
So what happens now? Both teams travel to Cape Town for their last skirmish at the picturesque Newlands Cricket Ground, with the famous Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak overlooking proceedings. The force, residing with the visitors after their Centurion assault has now shifted to the South Africans after their equally emphatic victory in Port Elizabeth.
The word out of Cape Town is that the Newlands surface should be sprightlier. This could mean that Mitchell Johnson might then be back in business. But Morkel showed his worth on the pedestrian Port Elizabeth pitch, and should be even more dangerous on a livelier surface against a top order over which coach Darren Lehman expressed concern. Also, Dale Steyn appears to be close to his best, and Vernon Philander, despite taunts from Warner, was as demanding as ever.
Cape Town should be a humdinger.