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Light ruling leaves Smith in the dark

Former Proteas skipper left perplexed at light issue that saw Mitchell Starc removed from attack after taking three wickets in over

Barring the unexpected arrival of the sort of prolonged deluge that much of South Africa has fruitlessly prayed for throughout another parched summer, Australia will secure a 1-0 lead when the first Test wraps up in Durban later today.

The small procedural matter of one South African wicket is likely to take place in front of a hundred or so enthusiastic Australia supporters who have travelled to the republic as part of organised sports tours, playing members of both teams and a handful of Kingsmead ground staff.

The local fans, so conspicuously absent from the sparsely attended Test since it began last Thursday, will be few (if any) when play resumes on a Monday morning with the second new ball awaiting the Australians and the likelihood it will not be required for too many overs before the inevitable outcome is concluded.

Given that left-arm quick Mitchell Starc had skittled three of the four remaining Proteas' batters standing between Australia and that victory within the space of five deliveries – and with around half an hour of scheduled playing time remaining last night – day five had seemed an unlikely necessity.

But the late afternoon darkness that descends around 4.30pm on South Africa's east coast come early autumn meant Australia captain Steve Smith received a blunt ultimatum from on-field umpires S Ravi and Kumar Dharmasena.

He was to employ spin bowlers for the final half hour in the hunt for the last remaining wicket to decide the Test, or agree to return on day five armed with a new ball and refreshed quicks in the hope that wet weather doesn't arrive in Durban in the meantime.

Smith opted for nine overs of his own leg spin and off-breaks from Nathan Lyon that failed to yield the decisive breakthrough, and his namesake and former South Africa skipper Graeme Smith admitted he was left perplexed by the application of the light ruling.

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"I just don't understand the logic of what the difference before Starc's over (in which he claimed the wickets of Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj and Kagiso Rabada) and at the end of Starc's over (with) the light," Smith told host broadcaster Super Sport at day's end.

"Granted he picked up (three) wickets, so would that influence the umpires' decision?

"If you're Rabada and Maharaj, you'd be seething (and thinking) 'why didn't you take us off before the over?'.

"The light stayed the same. My biggest gripe is what changed in those six balls?

Nothing aggressive in Markram chat: Paine

"From the start of the over to the end of that over, nothing (changed), the light stayed the same."

The problem posed by premature darkness had been foreshadowed by another ex-Proteas captain, allrounder Shaun Pollock, prior to the first of four Tests on Australia's Qantas Tour of South Africa began.

Pollock, who was born on the Rainbow Nation's eastern cape and spent much of his 16-year career playing for KwaZulu-Natal at Kingsmead, tweeted on Test eve that the first match should be played as a day game but using a pink ball so that floodlights could be switched on for the final session.

https://twitter.com/7polly7?lang=en

However, Australia wicketkeeper Tim Paine indicated last night that the tourists were largely unfazed by the umpires' edict that Steve Smith remove his fast bowlers from the attack or risk an immediate cessation of play.

Paine said similar decisions had been made on the previous evenings of this Test, and when he was at the crease late in the afternoon on day one the same offer was made to South Africa captain Faf du Plessis who opted not to take the spin option and instead have the day's play end 14 overs early.

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"It was just getting darker and darker," Paine said after stumps in answer to questions about how difficult conditions were in the middle come the final half hour.

"Even the spinners were becoming a little bit harder to see.

"It's got to be fair for the batters, and it was great they (the umpires) gave us a chance with the spin.

"But the umpires were constantly checking the light and it was just getting to the stage where it was too dark.

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"Obviously the state of the game tonight, we thought we'd have a crack at getting that last wicket (using the spinners).

"But we'll come here early tomorrow, do another warm-up and see what happens."

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South Africa's batting hero Aiden Markram, who has top-scored in his team's second innings to date with 143 from a total of 9-293 (still 123 runs adrift), said that the feeling within the home team's dressing room was that it was getting increasingly tough for batters in the middle.

The 23-year-old, who posted his third century in just his seventh Test appearance, also revealed that he and his batting partner Quinton de Kock (81 not out at stumps) had expected that play would end prematurely due to the light.

And his dismissal, which triggered Starc's rampage, was a major factor in the Proteas' dire position at day's end.

"I know the light changes quickly in Durban, as we've seen on previous days," Markram said.

"Quinny (de Kock) and I said to one another 'if we can just get through another half an hour, we might end up being off very shortly after that'."

Qantas tour of South Africa

South Africa squad: Faf du Plessis (c), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Theunis de Bruyn, AB de Villiers, Dean Elgar, Heinrich Klaasen, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Morne Morkel, Wiaan Mulder, Lungi Ngidi, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada.

Australia squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Jon Holland, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine, Jhye Richardson, Chadd Sayers, Mitchell Starc.

Warm-up match: Australia beat South Africa A by five wickets. Report, highlights

First Test Australia won by 118 runs. Scorecard

Second Test St George's Park, Port Elizabeth, March 9-13. Live coverage

Third Test Newlands, Cape Town, March 22-26. Live coverage

Fourth Test Wanderers, Johannesburg, March 30-April 3. Live coverage