A Test match that was written off by almost everyone (including us) as being little more than a bat-a-thon instead turned into one of the greatest Test matches ever played. It really had nearly everything except a result. But in the end even that omission was dwarfed in comparison to the effort that was displayed throughout, with the game standing as a fine testament to the continuing pre-eminence of Test cricket, and setting the series up perfectly for the deciding clash at the WACA.
If Australia walked away from the first Test on a high then the reverse was true here. After a first day where they bludgeoned nearly 500 runs, it was always their game to win. In the end they fell two wickets short, with their bowlers having been run into the ground after a brutal final day’s play. If any criticism could be raised of Michael Clarke’s captaincy it is perhaps that he set too large a total for the South Africans to chase down in the fourth innings, prompting them to withdraw into their shells and concentrate on survival instead. But even that is a touch unfair, as epic fourth innings are the South Africans’ forte, as they have repeatedly shown in this part of the world.
The decision to leave out Mitchell Starc, and the withdrawal of James Pattinson through injury, hurt Australia badly. Peter Siddle toiled manfully, bowling as well as he did against India in the same fixture last season, but Ben Hilfenhaus was again pretty rubbish. Not quite as bad as in the first Test, but still not nearly good enough to worry the opposition. In a way his rubbishness may save his spot, as Siddle may not recover in time from carrying the attack to play in Perth. Although it would be a brave man to drop Siddle at this point, so we will have to see. Nathan Lyon bowled well without great reward. His economy rate of less than 1 after 50 overs in the second innings shows the respect that the South African batsmen played him with, and he should also feature in the next Test.
Clarke was his usual self with the bat, peeling off his fourth double century of the calender year like it was nothing all that special, rather than the first time the feat had ever been achieved. His understudy was again Michael Hussey, whose own impressive form has been somewhat forgotten owing to the attention given to his captain. Hussey has gone from a player considered by many to be over the hill to once again being a key player in the Australian middle order. David Warner also answered his critics with a typically risk free innings. Considering that that approach comes off once a series, we’re expecting two failures at the WACA that nobody will blink an eye at.
We are passing over the contributions of Rob Quiney and Ricky Ponting somewhat. The former’s Test career is surely over, which is a little unfortunate as in different conditions he might have had a longer chance to prove himself, but with two failures here to go with the one in the first Test, he can have no real complaints. As for the latter we’ll have more to say elsewhere, but essentially it’s so long and thanks for all the fish. Matthew Wade also had a shocking game, but nobody seems to care much. Or even be the slightest bit surprised any more.
South Africa have had no shortage of bad luck so far on this tour, and that continued in this Test when Jacques Kallis broke down on the first morning. Although admittedly a lot of that bad luck may have been on their own doing, as their preparation for this series was utterly inadequate And they have nobody to blame except themselves for the selection of Imran Tahir. More on that in a bit.
The clear hero for South Africa was Faf du Plessis, who scored a century on début in the second innings, and could have had one in the first innings as well if he had not fallen after being left stranded with the tail. Which raises the issue that he is already too good a batsman to be left at number seven, and with Kallis set to miss the next Test, he may find himself promoted to number four as a direct replacement for a man with nearly 13,000 Test runs. So no pressure there then.
Graeme Smith scored a typically solid century in the first innings, but surprisingly failed in his second dig, which seemed to suggest an imminent collapse and a meek surrender of Test cricket’s number one spot. But Faf was able to keep the Aussies at bay, ably supported by Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers, who incidentally registered the longest Test innings in history without scoring a boundary. Kallis in particular batted well, and though he was severely hampered by injury and looked less mobile than usual (we honestly didn’t think that was possible), he still had little trouble in holding the fort.
With the ball Morne Morkel was again the main man and will be a fearsome prospect on the bouncy WACA pitch, and perhaps South Africa’s best hope for a series victory while Dale Steyn was again below par. Troubled by a hamstring complaint in the first innings, he has yet to fire at all this tour. Rory Kleinveldt surprised everyone by taking a handful of first innings wickets, but then quickly reverted to being utter shite, and will keep his place only because the tourists have nobody else left standing.
And then there is Imran Tahir. Australians in particular will find it hard to feel sorry for Tahir, after watching South Africa take apart their own spinners countless times in the past, but it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for him. He seems like a genuinely nice person. It’s unfortunate that he is also an utterly rubbish bowler.
An extremely short turnaround looms as South Africa look to quickly finish the tour before braai season begins in earnest back home. Both sides are utterly stuffed, perhaps the hosts more so, and it will be a hectic three or four days at Perth before a winner is ultimately decided. South Africa have flown Ryan McLaren over as cover, and also have Dean Elgar tucked away somewhere, while the composition of the Australian attack is a mystery at this stage.
In any case the final Test looms as an absolute belter, a true showdown for the top spot in Test cricket.