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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Second Test slips from Australia's grasp

Australia snatched at the second Test one last time at the Wanderers yesterday, then watched it slip forever from its grasp.
Just before lunch, South Africa was 3/90 in its second innings, a lead of merely 60. This was because of a combination of the sort of impetuous batting that has characterised the series - as if both teams were trying to fit three matches into two - and inspired mini-spells from Australia's two least experienced bowlers, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon.

Each in his own way worked over a senior and vastly more seasoned opponent. Cummins softened Jacques Kallis in the course of two maiden overs, after which Kallis played a most un-Kallis-like dash and was caught at slip. Previously, Cummins had disposed of Jacques Rudolph, who top-edged an ambitous pull.
Meantime, Lyon tethered South African captain Graeme Smith with two maiden overs. Impatiently, Smith made room to cut Lyon for four, but when he tried to repeat the shot, he succeeded only in sending a gentle catch to backward point. So did five Tests worth of bowling put it over 238 worth of batting. Test cricketers around the world have forgotten the art of hastening slowly; it is either one thing or the other.
Visions of victory danced before Australia's eyes. But over the next three hours, Hashan Amla and AB deVilliers brought them back down to earth, sharing a partnership of 139, halted only when the light dimmed and a thunderstorm swept in, ending the day's play. 3/229 overnight, South Africa leads by 199. No team has made more than 294 to win in the fourth innings on this ground.
Quickly, the truth about Australia's attack was exposed. Without Ryan Harris and Shane Watson, it is threadbare. On Thursday, 18-year-old Pat Cummins joined it for the first time. Today, he led it. For the future, that is exciting. For now, it imposed an impossible burden.
There is pace and there is pace. Mostly, Cummins bowled at the same speed as Mitch Johnson and Peter Siddle, hovering at 140kmh. But Cummins looked threatening in a way the other two did not. Johnson bowled this day off an experimental shortened run, an unusual manoeuvre in the middle of a Test match, puzzling the South Africans, but not imperilling them.
He lost no pace, and gained a little control, but still scarcely moved the ball. Nor did Siddle. For both, there are implications when the team for the first Test against New Zealand in a fortnight is picked. It is uncertain that hamstrung Watson will be available. ''I am going to get a scan done after this Test to see the extent but hopefully it wont be a real significant one that (will) put me out for a little while,'' he said. ''When I've done hamstrings in the past, its taken a little bit of time to build up my work before I can begin bowling again. So, hopefully, it wont be too long.''
Yesterday, Cummins caused the ball to tail in and away, not as lavishly as did Dale Steyn, but enough to concentrate the batsmen's minds. Unlike in the first innings, he used the short ball as an effective deterrent. Admirably, he sustained his effort, not something for which 18-year-olds generally are known, physically or mentally, unless it is at schoolies'. The day was breathlessly hot, and captain Michael Clarke, mindful not to ruin in the long term him, bowled him in short spells.
Clarke's next best hope was his imagination in trying to mock up the illusion of a replete attack. He made whirlwind changes, using himself, Mike Hussey and as failing light became an issue, even Ricky Ponting. He experimented with field settings, some meant to seduce, others to harass. He remained spirited.
But Amla and deVilliers are not the type to be budged by mere subterfuge. Amla is not a batsman who depends on presence. Rather he carries himself as if he hopes no-one has noticed he is in, so that he can just get on with making runs. Australia could not help but know: he has 223 runs alread in this micro-series, with power to add tomorrow.
deVilliers is orthodox, busy and assertive. Between them, they won this day not feats of derring-do, but through qualities rarely displayed in this series: concentration, patience and restraint. It made for even-paced cricket and fewer fireworks than a Saturday crowd with a boisterous disposition not unlike the MCG's in the 1980s might have liked, but they were also glad of the absence of wickets. Siddle and Johnson were, of course, re-baptised as wankers.
Australia had only half chances. Cummins might have caught and bowled deVilliers from a thumping drive immediately after lunch. Later, deVilliers was almost run out. Cummins also had Amla technically lbw. His appeal was rejected, Clarke referred it and technology showed that the ball notionally was clipping the stumps, but by such a fine margin that it made no determination. Thus, the standing umpire's decision stood.
''Hopefully we can get a few early wickets in the morning to be able to try and keep the run chase down as low as we possibly can,'' said Watson. ''There's no doubt it's going to be a big challenge no matter what.''
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