South Africa Stop Playing Like the World's Top Test Team as Australia Turn Screw

Antoinette MullerFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2014

South Africa's captain Graeme Smith, looks on after dropping a catch on the third day of their their cricket Test match against Australia at Centurion Park in Pretoria, South Africa, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/ Themba Hadebe)
Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

Take AB de Villiers out of the equation and it’s hard to find something South Africa have actually got right in the first Test against Australia.

From the decision to bowl first on a dry and flat deck—because the stats backed it up—to the way Mitchell Johnson rattled their batsmen on day two, South Africa have done precious little right.

Yet, it’s hardly anything new. South Africa has had a tough time getting going in Tests since they toppled England from their No. 1 perch in 2012. Russell Domingo, South Africa’s coach, called it "playing catch-up cricket" in the post-play press conference on Thursday.

He added that their resilience has pulled them through time and time again—and it has—but for a team who has been ranked No. 1 for about 16 months, it’s not good enough.

The Proteas’ "bouncebackability" [again Domingo's turn of phrase to the press] has been a hallmark of why they are the best team in the world, but at what point does their inability to start a series at full blast become a concern?

Whenever there has been a slow start in the series before it has not really mattered, because the pantomime has usually been without a villain.

Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

Until now.

Mitchell Johnson was hailed by Dennis Lillee to be a "once in a lifetime" prospect at the age of 17. Now the left-arm quick is also in "once in a lifetime" form and nothing can prepare any player for that kind of intensity.

For lovers of fast bowling, it’s mesmerising to watch. His ability to extract extra bounce and pin the South African batsmen down was fabulous. It was fierce and ruthless, and at 150 kmh, there was very little they could do, save for De Villiers.

De Villiers pushed, pulled, hooked, flicked and ran his way to a valiant 91. He scored 43 off 50 balls from Johnson, and although he might be freakish, he showed that it was possible to dig in and play him.

By the time South Africa were skittled for 206, though, Johnson had already laid his eggs in the minds of the South Africa batsmen. Those eggs were now starting to hatch into self-doubt parasites and spilling over into everywhere else.

The starkest evidence of just how obliterated their psyche is was the fielding. Nothing says under pressure and struggling like dropping sitter after sitter and misfielding simple balls.

Despite Chris Rogers falling early, South Africa looked deflated and deconstructed for the remainder of the day with David Warner easily notching up at on and even Alex Doolan—a player who could not buy a run against their A-team last winter—managing a feisty 89.

It’s starting to look like Ryan McLaren was too much of a safe choice and that Robin Peterson is perhaps not a bits-and-pieces player which South African can afford.

McLaren doesn’t offer anything to the bowling that South Africa doesn’t already have. Yes, he can get through overs, but there is no X-factor to him. Parnell, with his left-arm pace, would have offered something different: out-and-out for a few overs to square the batsmen up and creating a different angle, as well as some rough for JP Duminy’s spin.

Peterson, who averaged over 40.00 with the ball last year, is simply too inconsistent to perform a front-line spinner role. He might be able to chip in with the bat every now and then, but with spinners having so little success in South Africa, why take the risk? Why not opt for an all-out pace attack or bring in an extra batsman in Dean Elgar?

Duminy, Elgar and Faf du Plessis can all turn their arm over if needed. Jacques Kallis’ retirement was the perfect time to change the brand of cricket South Africa plays, but as usual, South Africa have opted for the safe answer.

Their safety-first mentality has catapulted them into a very sticky position in this Test and they have been outplayed by the Aussies in almost every aspect. Australia’s attacking containment showed right from the start. Johnson and Co. made South Africa play far more regularly.

According to Hawk-Eye, the home side only left only 19 percent of deliveries compared to the 27 percent of deliveries Australia were allowed to leave on day one.

Before the series began, Domingo and South Africa were telling those of us at in press conferences of the need to show "intent".

There has been very little intent in this Test from the Proteas so far. Unless their intention is to get absolutely hammered.