Australia v South Africa – Adelaide Test, Day 4: Phoenix or dead cat?
South Africa resuming 2nd innings 6/194 (SC Cook 81*, Q de Kock 0*), 70 runs ahead.
Telling Saturday night interventions from Nathan Lyon and Mitch Starc saw South Africa precariously poised as Day 4 began. Incumbent batsmen Cook and de Kock carried their team’s hopes of batting long enough to force Australia’s innings substantially into the trickier night conditions. Those hopes were dashed after just a few overs as de Kock contrived to miss a dead-straight Jackson Bird loosener. Umpire Nigel Llong must have been as shocked as de Kock: Australia required a review to complete the dismissal.
This set the tone for the remainder of South Africa’s resistance; wickets fell to largely innocuous deliveries. Once Starc and Hazlewood took the second new pinky, Philander soon missed a Starc inswinger, and Rabada gloved an attempted pull off Hazlewood to the keeper. Left with only debutant Tabraiz Shamsi’s rustic batting stylings for support, Cook offered an indeterminate defensive stroke to Starc and promptly lost his off stump.
Stephen Cook’s 104 was a triumph of dogged determination over style. Through the course of this series, he has looked the least convincing of South Africa’s top order batsmen by a comfortable margin. Crabbing footwork along the batting crease, and a tendency to hang the bat well away from his body outside off stump, have left Cook looking vulnerable at all times. He hardly looked much sturdier through most of his six hour occupation here, but scored effectively off his pads, wasn’t unduly disturbed by plays-and-misses, and variously nudged, nicked and nurgled the ball to other parts, sufficient to bring up his three figures. In conditions where batsmen have generally had to curb their stroke play to prosper, Cook likely required less adjustment than most.
Set only 127 for victory, with plenty of daylight time at their disposal, Australia needed only to avoid early collapse to secure the win. Kyle Abbott was unable to resume the same strangling control he’d shown on Day 2, allowing David Warner to set off at a run a ball. As Warner made swift inroads into the required total, Matt Renshaw continued on as he began in the first innings: leaving judiciously outside off stump, appearing unflappable when beaten, and content to wait until the ball was on his pads before looking to score.
Together, they’d knocked off half the target before Warner again pursued the dubious tactic of attempting a quick single to Temba Bavuma. Renshaw was unpersuaded by the call, and the inevitable confusion saw Warner run out by yards. An untidy departure, but Warner’s crisply scored 47 has seen Australia to relatively safe waters.
A few Australian dressing room qualms were no doubt raised when Khawaja departed LBW to Shamsi second ball. Having expended so much mental effort in the first dig, Khawaja could be excused the let down here. At 2-64, South Africa’s reaction didn’t suggest they fancied themselves much of a chance.
Steve Smith was certainly in no mood to entertain any further nonsense. With Renshaw entrenched at the other end, and the visitors unable to mount any sustained hostility, Smith made efficient work of most of the remaining runs. His chagrin at nicking one on the cusp of victory would have been quickly forgotten as newcomers Handscomb and Renshaw completed the honours.
Renshaw had seen his side home, unbeaten on 34, having seen off 137 deliveries, to go with the 46 he faced in the first innings. Having set himself to occupy the crease in this game, he made a significant contribution to ensuring his team’s victory. While his initial front foot movement closes off his body position, suggesting a technique still consolidating, his revealed temperament and patience are formidable qualities in a 20 year-old. It would surprise greatly if he wasn’t persisted with. The same should apply for his fellow debutants.
So Adelaide’s second day-night test saw Australia regain some badly needed equilibrium after the debacle that was Hobart. Given the tumult since then, all in the Australian dressing room deserve credit for rebounding. Pride was no doubt at stake. But the nature of this contest reinforced how badly Australia had fallen short previously. These were two sides that should have been evenly matched.
South Africa would have come to these shores regarding themselves as a team in some transition. Their recent test form had hardly been overwhelming. Missing AB de Villiers, and soon Dale Steyn, impressive youngsters de Kock and Rabada were required to fill the void. They did so most impressively. Journeymen openers Cook and Elgar both contributed a century, but not much else. JP Duminy scored a vital Perth ton, but failed to follow up. Hashim Amla was well below his best, which placed even more pressure on Faf du Plessis. Philander and Abbott lack the pace of many of their predecessors, but their movement and control accounted for an Australian team that only found resolve in this game. Overall, they will be delighted with the series win, but know they will have some significant holes to fill in the not too distant future.
The larger challenge for Australia will be to understand the real significance of this win. Dead rubber victories should usually be treated sceptically, but in the context of the drastic team overhaul post-Hobart, some promise is at least visible, if not confirmed. But the off field issues, which have significantly undermined on field performance, remained unaffected by team changes. For reasons only known to administrators, Australia now play three 50 over games against New Zealand, before assembling to play another day-night test against Pakistan, in Brisbane, on December 15th. It will be interesting to see if any momentum gained in Adelaide can carry through to Brisbane. This only reinforces the utter nonsense that is this summer’s international schedule.
It remains to be seen if the influx of youth to Australia’s batting order is an actual plan, or just a short term reaction. It also remains to be seen who will be making that larger selection determination beyond this season. Much now appears in flux. At least in this test, Usman Khawaja confirmed that he, along with Warner and Smith, will provide a nucleus around which those youngsters can hopefully build a batting line up. Nathan Lyon’s return to form and confidence (they seem inextricably linked with him) is also vital, as Starc and Hazlewood are currently carrying too much of the bowling burden.
Australia can look to the Pakistan series with more expectation than looked likely a week ago. But the fate of this team, and those in the Sheffield Shield who might hope to replace them, are still significantly at the mercy of the conditions and schedules bequeathed by administrators. Until Cricket Australia seriously addresses the need for a better balance between cricket’s commercial and playing needs, many of the problems of this summer will inevitably recur. We won’t know if any progress has been made in that regard until we see next summer’s fixture.
South Africa 9/259d & 250 v Australia 383 & 3/127: Australia won by 7 wickets