After the carnage in Cape Town, Australia and South Africa produced another sensational Test match which left supporters of the longer format in a state of apocalyptic fury at the lack of a decider. Whilst they have a point, it’s worth remembering that we have also sat through a considerable number of terrible five day games as well. There are two sides to every argument and it isn’t as simple as demanding all series comprise 10 Tests, home and away, with a one dayer and a T20 squeezed into a weekend somewhere in the middle.
In a sense, this game demonstrated why South Africa can’t quite make it to the top of the world. In 3 of the 4 innings the Proteas were in a position of supreme strength and three times they managed to throw it away. With the bat they twice collapsed (241/4 to 266 all out, then 237/3 to 266/7), only saved second time around by a late blitz from Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn. Throughout the series their lower order has looked extremely vulnerable, as both Ashwell Prince and Mark Boucher are short of runs and must be running out of time to make them. Even then they looked odds on with Australia still needing 100 from a horrendously out of form Haddin and the bowlers. Some absolutely abysmal bowling combined with bizarre field placings after Tea was akin to torpedoing the side of their own boat, and suddenly the game was gone.
That’s not to take away from Australia’s victory, as the mental strength they displayed to chase down over 300 having been bowled out for 47 (remember that?) just a week before was admirable indeed. All of Khawaja, Ponting, Haddin and Johnson deserve credit for their performance in the second innings. It may be that the latter three are very much in the twilight of their international careers, but in a sense that makes their efforts even more impressive. With the shadow of their new axe-wielder-in-chief, John Inverarity, looming over this series it’s not unreasonable to assume that at least one would not have made the first Test with New Zealand next month had they failed at the Wanderers. As it is, all will probably get a stay of execution, though it remains to be seen for how long that stays the case.
Johnson’s bowling is regressing at an alarming rate; if you exclude two Tests against New Zealand he averages over 40 since the start of 2010 and his strike rate in that time is the wrong side of 70. Before this Test Ricky Ponting hadn’t even made a half-century since Australia’s brief second innings in Brisbane last November, and it has been almost two years since he reached three figures. Haddin had a good Ashes with the bat, but since then it has been one long run of low scores, and he may well be in the most danger right now. If Tim ‘house of’ Paine didn’t have an injury record to put Shane Bond to shame, he may have been ditched already. Ripping everything up and starting again rarely works, but having eased the likes of Khawaja, Shaun Marsh and most recently Pat Cummins – whose debut can hardly have gone any better – into their squad, they can now afford to clear out some of the deadwood.
As for their opponents, they still seem to struggle getting over the line. One hesitates to utter the word ‘chokers’, but they haven’t won a series at home since Bangladesh in 2008, and just as they managed to draw with England when they should have won comfortably two years ago, they should have been ready to welcome the Sri Lankans with a 2-0 victory under their belts. Part of the problem is mental, but the aforementioned soft underbelly to their batting really cost them in Johannesburg and should have cost them in Cape Town as well. Their bowling attack is excellent; spearheaded by the great fast bowler of his generation in Steyn (who missed out on equalling Dennis Lillee’s record of being the fastest paceman to 250 wickets thanks to the 12th man dropping a dolly in Australia’s first innings) and ably supported by Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, who was superb in both games, but they cannot keep digging the batsmen out of a hole. Sooner rather than later Prince and Boucher will have to step up or get out, but a bowling attack of players who aren’t batsmen at all is costing them. Philander could be the answer, though it is a problem which is not going to disappear anytime soon given that their attack looks settled for some time to come.
It is a shame there is no third Test, the two we’ve been treated to this past fortnight have been superb entertainment and an excellent advert for the game. The second day at Newlands and the final day in Jo’burg will stay with everyone who watched them forever, and such a short series doesn’t allow for the developing sub-plots and storylines which make longer ones so enthralling. Regardless, we should sit back and appreciate the cricket these two sides have played for a moment. Test cricket is not dying, it is very much alive.