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An Australian team that has carried all before it over the past three months is facing the stern challenge that was expected from the world’s best team that has – rather like the sleepy Port Elizabeth pitch – awoken grumpily from its slumber in the second Test.
Having laboured for more than 150 overs to post 423, the first meaningful first-innings score an opponent has managed against Australia since the 2013 Ashes, South Africa’s bowlers found something in the St George’s Park deck that had noticeably eluded the previously rampant Australian bowlers.
As a result, Australia’s reply in a match that seemed destined for a draw at tea on day two as the home team’s batting dawdled along under minimal threat from Australia’s second-string attack was left wobbling at 4-112 at the close of the second day.
Daunting as it seemed with Chris Rogers (5), Alex Doolan (8), Shaun Marsh (0) and Michael Clarke (19) all victims of a pace attack that rediscovered its mojo, it could have been significantly grimmer if David Warner had not been missed (again) when on 43.
Or if night watchman Nathan Lyon had been rightfully adjudged caught behind off Dale Steyn in the evening’s penultimate over. Or if Graeme Smith had chosen to review that decision.
Or indeed if JP Duminy had held the very catchable gully chance from the same batsman an over later.
Warner was dropped multiple times on his way to 115 in the first Test, with none of those chances more straightforward than the top edge that the usually flawless AB de Villiers spilled off Morne Morkel who was able to generate pace and bounce that was clearly beyond Australia’s frontline attack.
While Morkel did not capture a wicket, he and Steyn gave Lyon the sort of working over that rival batsmen have copped at the hands of Australia’s Mitchell Johnson-led pace attack over recent Tests.
Warner was once again the stand-out contributor of Australia’s innings, and will resume on 65 and will again rely on help from Steve Smith and Brad Haddin to eat into the current 311-run deficit.
The turnaround in the respective performances of the two teams could not have been more marked from the opening game of the three-Test series that ended a week ago with a resounding win to Australia.
Where the South Africans appeared lacklustre, inattentive and reactionary at Centurion, they followed up a disciplined if unadventurous batting effort with a decisive 25-over spell in the final session, the highlight of which was allrounder Wayne Parnell’s return to Test ranks.
Almost four years after his previous Test appearance, Parnell made a triumphant return to his home ground having Doolan caught behind from his first delivery and Marsh removed in the same manner two balls later.
Clearly intent on showing a sense of urgency with the bat that South Africa refused to embrace, the Australians paid the price most notably when Clarke tried to drive on the up against Vernon Philander – a shot fraught with danger on a slow surface – and duly spooned a catch to short cover.
The Australians had begun the second day in the hope that the second new ball might hasten the end of South Africa’s innings, and breathe some much-needed life into the meandering game.
Those aspirations were not only dashed, but made to appear naively optimistic when de Villiers and Duminy batted throughout the opening session without seeming likely to lose their wicket.
The defining moment of the day, and the definitive assessment of the pitch to that stage came not long before the lunch break by which stage the sixth-wicket pair had added 100 runs for the morning and Clarke was scratching his head for a means of securing a breakthrough.
Having failed to snare de Villiers in the manner that proved so successful in the first Test – having him caught driving in the air on the off-side – he introduced his own rarely seen derivation of leg theory.
He had Peter Siddle bowl around the wicket with a cordon of four catchers awaiting a catch, not behind the wicket where tradition dictates dismissals are completed – but in an arc stretching from short mid-on around to just in front of the square leg umpire.
The idea was that De Villiers would look to clip the ball off his pads, and the absence of pace in the pitch would heighten the risk of getting into the stroke early and lifting a false stroke into the trap.
But in the form that he’s currently enjoying, and has been for more than a year, de Villiers doesn’t play false strokes.
So he duly noted the game, raised the stakes and when the expected fullish, leg-stump offering arrived he coolly lifted over the cordon, beyond the mid-wicket and into the crowd.
From there, De Villiers motored unencumbered to his 15th Test century and fifth against Australia further stretching his unprecedented record of scores in excess of 50 in 12 consecutive Tests that has eclipsed the mark of 11 that Sir Vivian Richards set for the West Indies four decades ago.
Eventually he did fall in the only way that seemed remotely probable other than a run-out, skipping down the pitch to Lyon only to have the ball check on him and the resultant lofted shot intercepted by the bowler sprawling to his right.
By that stage, the Australians had accepted that the surface on which their bowlers were labouring would only blunt their effectiveness for the three innings that remain in the series and so the quicks were essentially packed into bubble wrap to be kept safe for another day.
From the lunch break until the South African innings reached its conclusion half an hour after tea, the tourists’ frontline quicks sent down just eight overs between them, none of them from the most historically fragile of the trio, Ryan Harris.
Instead, Clarke relied on Lyon who toiled diligently on a pitch where the bounce was so slow that even the slightest shortfall in length meant batsmen could comfortably stand and wait, then flick it to wherever the fielders weren’t.
And as the day dragged on, he resorted to using himself and Warner in high rotation, swapping between one and the other after one-over spells.