Why Day 1 at Centurion Proves Australia Have the Mettle to Defeat South Africa

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2014

Australia's batsman Shaun Marsh, left, celebrates his century as South Africa's bowler JP Duminy, right, looks on, on the first day of their their cricket test match at Centurion Park in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

"Have fun in South Africa," said the doubters when Australia lifted the urn in Sydney.

"Don't let Dale and Morne scare you over there," chirped the snide ones.

It seems the Australians are made of sterner stuff than many of us realised. Or perhaps Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith simply didn't recognise the cynicism and waltzed off to the Rainbow Nation in the blissful belief that fun was set to be had.

Whichever it is, Australia's opening-day performance at Centurion has delivered a compelling message: The tourists mean business.

Closing the day on 297/4, it's difficult to shake the feeling that Australia have emphatically passed their most important examination of the series.

Despite the talk regarding the credentials of the respective bowling attacks leading into the first Test, most acknowledged that the result of this three-match heavyweight bout would likely hinge on Australia's susceptible batting outfit.

It's a logical conclusion. We all knew Peter Siddle was good. We knew Ryan Harris was really good. We knew Mitchell Johnson was lethal. But we knew Australia's batsmen could also collapse like an Arsenal title challenge.

Had Michael Clarke's side been steamrollered on the opening day, South Africa's grip on the series would have been vise-like. While acknowledging the strength of Australia's bowling ensemble, we also know that small first-innings totals lose Test matches, and that losing the first encounter of a three-match series normally means lights out for the visiting side.

CENTURION, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 12:  Steven Smith and Shaun Marsh of Australia leave the field at the end of play during day one of the First Test match between South Africa and Australia on February 12, 2014 in Centurion, South Africa.  (Photo by Morn
Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

Which makes the significance of Australia's performance on Day 1 all the more impressive.

Still fighting jet lag, Marsh made of a mockery of the notion that players need time in a new country if they are to succeed. Selected on a hunch, Marsh landed in South Africa on Sunday, less than 48 hours after winning the Big Bash final with the Perth Scorchers.

After arriving at the crease with his side precariously placed at 24/2, Marsh put on a clinic in composure. The combined threat of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander posed no danger to the left-hander as he played a next-to-no-chance innings.

Yet it was an innings that was curiously unmemorable aesthetically. There were few graceful flourishes from the 30-year-old; his drives more punchy than flowing, a number of his pulls and hooks largely mis-timed.

But thanks to a dogged concentration and countless nudges off his pad and hip, Marsh found a way to grind and accumulate runs, doing so against a world-class attack.

It's that very quality that, in the wake of their Ashes triumph, was still being questioned about this team. They'd shown they could blow sides apart as front-runners. But could they prosper in tougher situations?

A jet-lagged left-hander with a sore calf, little preparation time and a Test batting average of just 27.36 put a stop to that line of questioning in one afternoon.

At the other end, Smith simply picked up where he left off in Sydney. Despite twitching in between each delivery more than a five-year-old having a nightmare, the talented right-hander was a picture of poise and confidence, revelling in his current stretch of form.

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 12: Steve Smith of Austrailia during day 1 of the 1st Test match between South Africa and Australia at SuperSport Park on February 12, 2014 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images)
Gallo Images/Getty Images

Busy at the crease and quick between the wickets, the 24-year-old never let the home side's attack settle on him. When Steyn over-pitched, Smith flayed him through cover-point. When Morkel and Philander dropped just short, he dispatched them through mid-wicket.

His growing maturity evident, the New South Welshman also recognised his partner's fatigue and assumed the mantle of the aggressor when the second new ball arrived.

Together the two men amassed an unbeaten partnership of 199, driving Australia into a dominant position on the opening day of the series. In doing so, the unlikely pair also showcased a gritty composure that many of us had pondered the often-seeming absence of in Australia's current batting stocks.

Thus Day 1 saw a dramatic shift in perception regarding these teams. Suddenly it's the South Africans with questions lingering over them.

Can Steyn recapture his normal threat in the remainder of this Test, after suffering from gastro on the opening morning? Can Philander extract a degree of deviation from this pitch? By attacking the spinners, have Australia already rendered Robin Peterson and JP Duminy ineffectual, just as they did to Graeme Swann? Will Graeme Smith rue his decision to send the visitors in on a warm, clear day?

CENTURION, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 12: Graeme Smith of South Africa leads his team from the field after day one of the First Test match between South Africa and Australia on February 12, 2014 in Centurion, South Africa.  (Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Ima
Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

Of course, the sudden presence of these questions and doubts doesn't indicate that South Africa are on the ropes in this series. The home side are far from that position. They only need to look at their position just after lunch, when Australia shakily stood at 98/4, to realise that.

But the presence of such questions typifies the strength of the visitors' opening-day display.

In stealing the initiative away from the world's best side, and doing so in hostile territory, Australia have quickly asserted themselves as genuine challengers to their all-conquering guests.

And whether it was us—or actually themselves that needed the convincingis now largely irrelevant, for Australia have shown that South Africa's supremacy is far from untouchable.