A Test in which ball was supposed to dominate bat throughout turned out to be anything but with, a few short spells aside, batsmen on both sides cashing in on the benign conditions. Except David Warner and Ricky Ponting of course, who instead preferred to spend two days sitting around watching episodes of Gilmore Girls.
In a way both sides seemed to get their team selections wrong. South Africa erred by not picking a spinner while Australia would have been better off dropping Nathan Lyon for the left arm quick Mitchell Starc. The Australian attack was flat on the first day, although they have a case that luck wasn’t on their side, and whilst better in their second attempt, still lacked consistent pace and aggression. Hilfenhaus in particular bowled well below what he is capable of (about 275mph if the speed guns in the IPL are to be believed) and a couple of late wickets in the first innings flattered him. Siddle and Pattinson were better, but bowled too short and too straight, signs that they lacked patience in the face of a line-up that wasn’t prepared to throw its wickets away as consistently as India did last year.
There was something quite stubborn about the selection of Nathan Lyon, a player who has been woefully out of form for some time now. You could be excused for believing that his selection owed a lot to the fact that the selectors felt his confidence couldn’t withstand such a public snub. In any case, Michael Clarke showed he had little faith in his spinners ability, choosing not to bowl him till late on the fifth day and immediately withdrawing him when Kallis looked like taking him apart. If you are scared of bowling a spinner on the last day of a Test, what is he there for exactly?
The Australian batting, however, was far more encouraging. Ed Cowan’s maiden Test century was the statement that he needed. He looks like having put aside the uncertainties in his game that have blighted his career thus far, and now finally looks like he belongs. Clarke’s imperious form as captain continued, and he became just the third man to score three double centuries in a calendar year, after Ponting and some bloke called Bradman. Hussey’s century also, against an attack that his historically had his number, dispelled doubts as to his position within the team. Rob Quiney, however, fluffed his lines and will be hoping that Watson also misses the next Test; otherwise his will have been one of the least memorable careers in Test history.
What makes a champion team is not the ability to pick on an opposition team’s weaknesses, but rather their ability to isolate their strengths and also beat them there. Once you have taken your opponents’ trump card away, they have nothing to fall back on and victory is assured. After a first day in which they dominated the over-hyped Aussie pace attack, it appeared that South Africa had done just that, taking out of the equation Australia’s best (probably only) avenue to success in this series. Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis looked imperious, giving no indication that the long pause between their last Test hitout had dulled their form in any way.
The rest of the batting was less memorable, with AB de Villiers and Jacques Rudolph not exactly impressing. With Jean-Paul Duminy’s involvement scuppered by a training exercise that occurred when he should have been back in the sheds, relaxing with a couple of beers and a cigarette or two, it means the South African middle order continues to look like a weak spot.
The bowling also surprisingly emerged as a weak spot. It wasn’t that the South Africans bowled badly (with one exception, that we will cover below), it’s just that their tactics were uninspiring in the extreme. Bowling a dry line outside off and waiting for a lose shot might work against the likes of David Warner but Cowan and Clarke are made of sterner stuff, and they subsequently rarely looked troubled. Vernon Philander in particular looked a shadow of the player who has terrorised batting line-ups around the world for the past twelve months. The lack of a change bowler, such as Imran Tahir, meant that the Australian batsmen knew they could play for time and wait till the quick men tired. Just as their pre-game dossier predicted.
Of course South Africa can be somewhat excused for their team selection, considering that everyone expected the Gabba to be a fast bowlers paradise, and the knowledge that Imran Tahir is really pretty rubbish. But their selection of a fast talking American teenage girl called Rory surprised the hell out of everyone. It might have been a genius decision in the right circumstances, particularly if they could have moved Rory into a close-in fielding position whilst Michael Clarke was batting, giving her the opportunity to prey on his well known love of shopping. But, alas, it was not to be, and instead Rory spent most of the game pouting on the boundary in one of the least convincing débuts we have seen in some time.
Most would have expected South Africa to be well ahead by this stage, particularly after they dominated the first day. Instead Australia could consider themselves slightly ahead on points. With a long break till the next Test, much of the South African team will be off to the golf course, whilst hopefully David Warner is off to see his psychiatrist.
Dean Elgar will replace Duminy in the touring squad, but will battle with Faf du Plessis for a starting spot. While for Australia everything hinges on the fitness of Shane Watson, with Quiney the obvious man to make way. There is also the all-conquering domestic form of one Usman ‘Don’ Khawaja to consider, putting extra pressure on the positions of Warner and Ponting.