Monday, 24 February 2014

South Africa Too Smart, Too Good

Australia were never going to win at Port Elizabeth.
Steyn removes Haddin for the second
time in the match, bowled middle stump

Poor first innings batting and a huge deficit made that much clear but they didn't have to lose. With it unlikely that a ball would be bowled on the last day, they only had to bat reasonably to save the match.

Unlike their first innings effort, the collapse after Chris Rogers and Dave Warner added a century opening stand, had little to do with the batsmen. Graeme Smith reaffirmed his status as a shrewd captain by setting up his teams only chance, which was to rattle the Aussies with swing. JP Duminy was on in the 13th over to wear the ball out and by the 40th over, Morkel was reversing the ball.

Under such conditions, Dale Steyn can be even more deadly than Micthell Johnson but against a batting lineup which, despite changes to its personal, still can't handle the swinging ball, he was at his destructive best. In ten overs, Australia lost 5-14 and Steyn had three of them, bending the ball at pace out and then in. Eight down at the normal time for stumps, the umpires invoked their prerogative and allowed extra time for the South Africans to win. Rogers finally succumbed, unbeaten by bowling but undone by pressure, run out after a fine century.

This is a much better Australian side the recent past. This collapse, where the ten wickets fell for a hundred was the result of good bowling and smart captaincy, not a case of poor shot selection or inadequate technique. South Africa had the best of the Australians all match and only a fool would have believed after Centurion that this champion team wouldn't come to play. You don't make it to number one and stay there just on the back of one player. Those who thought South Africa would be vulnerable because Jacques Kallis was sick of the aches and pains of Test cricket were short sighted.

Australia's problems aren't that great ... with the exception of Michael Clarke. He has been saying in the last week that he's hitting the ball well in the nets. Team mates keep commenting on his great form at practice. Has there ever been a time when this hasn't been the public approach to a skipper out of form? Think back on Ponting or Taylor when their form hit the wall. They were hitting the ball well in the nets too. Whatever mystery is involved between the nets and the gate, Clarke isn't looking good in the middle. As the best batsman in the side, his disintegration has been dramatic since his first innings century in Adelaide: 11 innings, 161 runs at an average less than 18 and no scores over 25. He's faced 395 deliveries in those eleven innings ... that's less than six overs an innings. His outside edge has become a juicy smorgasbord for opposition bowlers and his waning confidence is clear from the disappearance of that tuck to the leg side to get off the mark or those spanking front and back foot drives early in his innings where asserts himself.

He's too scared to play at the ball, his footwork is indeterminate and he just ends up wafting. Its the same form which lost him his Test place but the (C) next to his name should ensure that doesn't happen. He just needs to come to the crease and take the bowlers on.

Perhaps he needs some of Warner's luck. The brash opener has been dropped by the South Africans more times than he's had innings but such is the nature of the beast. Had their fingers not been buttered, he would again be under the pump from media. Rogers solved his problems with a solid hundred last night. He alone was able to convert hunger into result but then, he has played more against a swinging ball than the rest of the side.

Craig McDermott has a long term role to convert his skills as a bowling coach into passing on secrets as a batting coach.

Australia were outplayed by a smarter, better side in all areas except fielding.

The question is, are they the champion team in the making Australia supporters are hoping for? If so, a lift should be expected in Capetown and a hell of match might be in the offing.