South Africa's Recapture of Identity Pushes Australia out of Comfort Zone

Tim CollinsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2014

PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 21: Alex Doolan of Australia leaves the field after getting out to Wayne Parnell of South Africa during day two of the Second Test match between South Africa and Australia at AXXESS St George's Cricket Stadium on February 21, 2014 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  (Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)
Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

As players took to the field in the morning on Day 2 at Port Elizabeth, there was a general consensus that the onus of pushing this second Test along lay with the South Africans. 

After an opening day that had meandered at an excruciatingly slow pace—so much so that the brass band operating in the stands was more entertaining than the cricket—it seemed that the home side's only path back into this series was through increased aggression on the second day.

Yet, while many pondered South Africa's need to avoid a draw and keep their hopes of victory alive, captain Graeme Smith and his men set their focus on rediscovering their identity that was lost at Centurion, pushing Australia into an uncomfortable position in the process.

It was, of course, that very intent that made for a rather forgettable opening day; the hosts crawling to 214/5 in front of a crowd that admirably tried to maintain an interest. But lost on many—but not to the South Africans—was the effect that the approach had on Australia's pulsating momentum. 

PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 21:  Mitchell Johnson of Australia prepares to bowl during day two of the Second Test match between South Africa and Australia at AXXESS St George's Cricket Stadium on February 21, 2014 in Port Elizabeth, South Afri
Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

For the entirety of Australia's stunning six-game winning streak, Michael Clarke and Co. have been allowed to cruise as front-runners. In five of the six Tests, Australia have batted first. In the only match that they didn't in Melbourne, England fell apart more comically than they did in any other match of their forgettable Ashes campaign.

It's a fact that South Africa were clearly aware of. Thus, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy took their time, opting for an attritional approach to wear their opponents down.

De Villiers in particular, refused to hand Australia an early advantage, toiling for just nine runs in the opening hour of play. When Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris strayed wide, the keeper-batsman didn't waft his blade. When Nathan Lyon tossed a couple up, he defiantly prodded them back.

At the other end, Duminy played with a greater degree of freedom. Growing in confidence on a featherbed-like pitch and alongside the world's best batsman, the left-hander kept the scoreboard moving with a stylish array of front-foot strokes while showing the same intense application exhibited by his partner. 

In doing so, the pair restored the calm and sense of purpose that has defined South Africa's time at the game's pinnacle. Gone was the panic-stricken group who were blown away at Centurion. Gone were the frantic minds and rolling eyes that succumbed to Johnson's fury. Through de Villiers and Duminy's dogged focus, the home side recaptured their identity. 

With Australia enduring their toughest spell on the field in recent memory, the pair both reached hard-earned centuries.

Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

Of course, nothing can suppress the Australian captain's ingenuity, but the results that stem from it can be tempered. Clarke was his usual self, rotating the bowlers relentlessly, using both Steve Smith and David Warner in an attempt to unsettle the batsmen.

At one point, he deployed four men in catching positions at short mid-wicket to try and pry the wicket of de Villiers. 

In the end, it was Lyon's discipline that claimed South African wickets. From 46 tidy overs, the emerging off-spinner claimed 5-130 to deliver the haul of scalps that his bowling often deserves.

Despite grabbing the final four wickets for only 45 runs, Australia had been forced out of their comfort zone. The customarily rapid capture of wickets hadn't occurred. The opposition hadn't been "Johnsoned." Instead, the Australians had been forced to endure 150 overs in the field and had a 423-run deficit to show for it.

As the innings switched over, South Africa's renewed sense of self became more evident. The jaded look that accompanied them in the field at Centurion was replaced by an intensity more familiar with Smith's side. The fielders yapped away, and the bowlers charged back to their marks—the energy was palpable. 

More importantly, the Australians could feel it.

Morne Morkel charged in, drawing bounce out of the same wicket that had offered little to Johnson, Harris and Peter Siddle. Despite going unrewarded, the tall right-armer's impact was keenly felt; Lyon sustaining blows as night watchman, while Warner was fortunate to be dropped by de Villiers. 

In conjunction with Vernon Philander and Wayne Parnell, the South African attack suddenly possessed a relentless nature to it, with only Dale Steyn looking somewhat out of sorts. 

PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA - FEBRUARY 21:  Michael Clarke of Australia leaves the field after getting out to Vernon Philander of South Africa during day two of the Second Test match between South Africa and Australia at AXXESS St George's Cricket Stadiu
Morne de Klerk/Getty Images

Despite Warner rattling along at close to a run-a-ball, his teammates fell victim to the hosts' bubbling intensity. So comfortable at Centurion, both Alex Doolan and Shaun Marsh pushed at deliveries they didn't need to play at, handing Parnell two scalps from his opening three balls. 

When Clarke tamely chipped a straight ball from Philander to Dean Elgar at cover, the extent of the momentum shift between the teams became starkly apparent. The Australians closed the day at a shaky 112/4.

But more telling than the end result was how South Africa got there. Despite the seeming need to press ahead and aggressively chase the game when play started, the home side unearthed the composure that was missing at Centurion. 

Calm was restored. The team's belief in their superiority grew. Australia's rampant method was disturbed. 

By stubbornly pushing their opponents into a position that has become foreign for them, the South Africans have wrestled away the initiative in a manner that seemed unlikely to do so. 

With their identity restored, this series suddenly has a completely new look.