South Africa’s stunning win at Hobart inside what was effectively two-and-a-bit days of Test cricket has handed them a series win that few could have foreseen when this three-match campaign began a couple of weeks ago.
The Proteas wrapped up victory by an innings and 80 runs thanks to another extraordinary batting collapse at Blundstone Arena that saw Australia capitulate from hopes of a fightback to one of abject hopelessness in the twinkling of a T20 game.
With the prospect of a day-night Test match, in which batting is expected to be problematic, ahead at the end of another week of soul searching.
Amid all the talk of ‘resilience and adaptability' and the indication that arose from Monday evening’s resolve that the batting had turned a corner, this morning’s capitulation revealed that to be the darkest of dead ends.
In fact, ‘adaptability and resilience’ can quite comfortably be replaced by ‘predictability and incontinence’ as Australia uncorked another of those batting collapses that are now a matter of course for at least once per Test.
Or, in the case of this match that handed South Africa a series win and the very real prospect of an unprecedented whitewash on Australian soil, once per innings.
In less than 20 overs, over a time span of barely an hour-and-a-half, the best batting that Australia can field in Test match cricket fell apart once again.
The 8-32 they lost making a mockery of the 10-86 they shed in their first innings at Perth, and the 10-85 that blighted the opening day at Hobart.
The damage was done by the Proteas’ fourth-string seamer Kyle Abbott, who answered those who queried his selection ahead of regular Test quick Morne Morkel by claiming a man-of-the-match 6-77.
More than ably supported by man of the match at the WACA Kagiso Rabada, whose 4-34 would have been a story in itself but for other events.
Not even the redoubtable Steve Smith, who had battled for two-and-a-half hours to score 31 in another lost cause, could see it out to the end, having nicked off to Rabada to be the eighth man dismissed.
The issue for the embattled Australia captain now is to find a team that can rally around him, a task that looks increasingly beyond many in the current outfit.
Khawaja had looked as comfortable as any Australia batsman the previous evening as he posted his team’s first individual half-century of the Test with a technique that looked to have been adapted for the conditions.
Playing the ball late, employing a softness of hands that meant he was less inclined to follow the deliveries that decked away off the surface, and was able to kill the pace on the ball and look to score in ones and twos rather than the hunt for boundaries the Australians had found habitual.
But that all changed when he was systematically and ruthlessly worked over by Kyle Abbott in the day’s 10th over, by which time the home team had advanced their score by runs.
All of them from Khawaja’s blade, though not all scored with authority.
The first ball of the over was guided cautiously past gully by the left-hander, as if aware of what Abbott was searching to achieve but sufficiently canny to negotiate it.
But the next ball saw Khawaja attempt to turn it gently towards mid-wicket only for it to dart off the pitch and grab a hefty outside edge to once again roll away through the slips cordon.
So Abbott pitched fuller and wider, Khawaja obliged with a wafty but unsuccessful drive that signalled his resilience was starting to wane, his uncertainty compounded when the fourth ball of the over evaded his speculative defensive prod.
The South Africa quick, who wouldn’t have been playing in this Test but for the shoulder fracture sustained by Dale Steyn in Perth, then aimed his sucker punch that doubled as the knock-out.
The first one that he pushed wider in the hope of eliciting the error, Khawaja was sufficiently prudent to let alone.
The next one, even shorter as if to say ‘well if you want one to have an ill-disciplined thrash at, get a load of this’ did the trick as the combination of no footwork, angled bat and indecision between drive and cut produced the edge.
And triggered the collapse that the tourists know is only ever one breakthrough away from starting.
Not that they could have quite envisaged how it would then unfold.
Adam Voges, who five Tests ago was celebrated for posting a Test average of more than 100, found a way of losing his wicket that was even more unsightly than playing all over an Eric Hollies leg break.
A clouded mind leaving him trapped between the pull shot he instinctively wanted to aim when he saw Abbott drop short, and the withdrawal from the stroke he felt the circumstances demanded lest option A misfire.
So he was left with bat raised half-defiant, half-defeated from which the ball simply deflected to gully in scenes more usually played out in the backyard.
Which was not dissimilar to the circumstances in which Callum Ferguson’s Test debut ended in ignominy three overs later, the first of a brace of wickets to Kagiso Rabada who added a burst of brutality that prised apart an already reeling middle and lower-order.
Ferguson, like Voges, wasn’t sure whether to duck, cover or parry when Rabada angled the ball in at him at pace, in fashion not dissimilar to some of those feared West Indian quicks who could target batters and make them feel there was no escape at the crease.
The South Australian, who now boasts an unwanted Test average of two with no certainty that he’ll have a chance to amend it, was left squatted in front of his stumps as Rabada’s delivery thumped into the gloves he had tried to drop to allow the ball to harmlessly pass.
If it had not lobbed gently to third slip and it had struck him any further up the arm, he would have likely been adjudged lbw.
And if he’d managed to get everything out of the ball’s way, he would have been bowled top of middle.
From there, it was the procession from a couple of days earlier with the only difference being Smith’s inability to stay with wicket intact for the final act.
Peter Nevill, whose batting average edges ever closer to the teens while his counterpart in the Proteas middle-order pushes past 50, was disarmed by a Rabada throat ball he could only bunt to gully in an act of self-defence.
Joe Mennie, named as much for the extra depth he brought to the batting as for the steady seamers he delivered with the ball, missed a full toss that neither swung in the air or contacted the pitch and was convinced by Smith to demand the most apologetic of DRS reviews.
Which, of course, failed.
As did Mitchell Starc who nicked a loose drive for the second time in as many innings, perhaps in protest to the lack of fight his top-order chums have repeatedly provided over the past five Tests while he’s been fruitlessly setting up Test matches with his bowling.
At least he, along with Smith, David Warner and Josh Hazlewood, has the comparative comfort of knowing he’ll be in the squad for the pink ball Test that starts in Adelaide in just over a week.
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