The irresistible performances that Australia reeled off during their home summer have now carried them to an impregnable position in their first offshore challenge against the world’s top-ranked Test team.
As was the case so often during the Ashes, it was Mitchell Johnson’s unfriendly, unplayable bowling and David Warner’s belligerent batting that initially prised apart South Africa’s grip on the first Test, and then snatched it brutally from their grasp.
But it wasn’t only the Ashes heroes who lifted them to a lead of 479 runs with seven wickets in hand and two days to play, a position from which only the Highveld’s notoriously cranky late summer weather or an act of unprecedented batting brilliance can prevent the Australians completing a rare and memorable contemporary away-from-home Test win.
Alex Doolan carried the look of a poised, polished veteran in just his second Test innings and was on track to become the 15th Australian to score a century on debut until – on 89 – he feathered a late cut shot from part-time spinner JP Duminy near day’s end.
The knowledge he had shown more than enough mettle and maturity against quality bowling in difficult conditions to stake a genuine claim for the No.3 batting berth provided no solace as Doolan trailed dejectedly from the ground, realising he might never see a better chance to complete a Test century.
However, he is set to join an equally meritorious collective of debutants who celebrated a Test win in their first outing in the Baggy Green, and pose a problem for selectors should Shane Watson make himself available for the second Test in Port Elizabeth next week.
Johnson’s 7-68 achieved more than carrying him past Richie Benaud to sit as Australia’s seventh-highest Test wicket-taker of all time with 249 – and the prospect of a fair few more to come.
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More crucially in the context of current events, his 44th wicket since he returned to Test cricket in the first Ashes Test (at a stunning average of 13) meant South Africa was bowled out for 206, their lowest first-innings score in a Test match for more than two years.
The 191-run lead that gifted Australia was then stretched through a 205-run second-wicket stand between Doolan and Warner, the latter indulging his punters’ streak that combined a string of lucky escapes with an even longer list of memorable off-side strokes to post a classy 115.
The flamboyant left-hander, who at last appears to have found a means of backing up his incendiary public statements with mature, confident batsmanship, clearly realised it was to be his day from the moment he resumed after lunch.
That was when he, having uncharacteristically taken 11 balls to get off the mark and 18 before finding the boundary, crunched three fours from a single Dale Steyn over and was thus convinced it was time to go.
He skied a miscued hook shot from Vernon Philander’s next over having reached 26, only to see substitute fielder Dean Elgar – on the field for Steyn who was seemingly seeking a remedy to his haemorrhaging bowling – turf the chance running in from the fine leg boundary.
When Morne Morkel came on to try and do a better job of replacing Steyn at the bowling crease, Warner flashed at his first ball that flew hard and high towards second slip where Alviro Petersen proved more successful at preventing a boundary than he did at taking the catch.
In between these calamities for the fielding team, Doolan survived an lbw appeal against Philander that was more desperate than confident, and by the time Graeme Smith and his committee had decided to challenge the not out call the window allowed for reviews to be lodged had hung its ‘next teller please’ sign.
From these three events, which unfolded within the space of an over, South Africa’s spirit was clearly sapped and the question as to how the world’s top team would respond when seriously challenged and how deep they were able to dig for a response could be answered – in order – not well and not very.
Warner was missed again on 51 when Smith at first slip leapt skywards with the gazelle-like grace of a tapir and got one hand to a tough overhead chance, only to spill it as it fell towards the other.
And by the time he reached 97 and Morkel’s unsuccessful lbw plea was deemed, on review, to have pitched marginally outside leg stump on its way to levelling at least two of the three stumps, Warner’s century was assured.
The way in which he reached it, with a spanking drive that threaded the thin gap between mid-off and extra cover from the very next ball, was fitting given that played far too many similar, stylish and perfectly executed shots in his 151 ball stay for it to be remembered as an innings of fortune above flair.
By the time he departed, caught sharply by Smith in in a rare highlight from a match that he’s found largely forgettable from the time he won the toss and handed Australia first use of the pitch, Australia’s lead was 397 and officially deemed inaccessible.
Bear in mind that the highest successful fourth-innings run chase at Centurion is the 251 that England posted 15 years ago, although that can be discounted because it was effectively a one-day game played within a Test and is discredited because it was corrupt.
That was the Test in which the late South Africa captain Hansie Cronje decided that a new leather jacket, a fistful of cash and a perpetual place in infamy comprised a far more tempting return than his nation’s sporting credibility, and he duly contrived a result that achieved all the above.
The next-best last innings chase here was the 226 South Africa achieved to overhaul Sri Lanka in 1997-98, an innings that was perversely underpinned by Cronje who top scored with 82.
Even with his stain long since cleansed from South African cricket and three of the world’s top 10 Test batsman in their upper-order, the task set the home team on an increasingly unpredictable Centurion pitch would be a stretch when pitted against most Test bowling attacks.
Adding Johnson to that equation makes it unthinkable.
Which is something of a shame because, according to local predictions, tomorrow was the day when the so-far-absent crowds were due to show up at Centurion.
Perhaps they might still come, lured by the chance to Johnson unleash his torment or perhaps to watch another sublime innings from AB de Villiers, the lone batsman to surpass 25 in South Africa’s first innings and the only player who looked equipped to deal with Johnson’s pace.
The only blemish in de Villiers’ 91 came when he holed out to mid-off, in chase of runs as his partners deserted him with such haste as to make a further mockery of Valentine’s Day, which robbed him of a century that even the most jingoistic Australian acknowledges he deserved.
Of even greater concern for South Africa, beyond the fact that Johnson would appear to have destroyed their self-belief and spirit in the space of a couple of brutal spells, is that de Villiers – the only batsman who looks able and willing to take the fight to Australia’s attack – is clearly in pain.
More so from the surgery he had to remove a plate from his previously damaged left hand in the lead-up to the Test and from which he has struggled to recover than from the indignity being heaped upon his proud, teetering team at the start of this series.