The second Test between Australia and South Africa in Adelaide this weekend began at breakneck speed on Thursday and slowed to snail’s pace this afternoon, in a contest that reminded everyone why they call it ‘Test’ cricket.
It’s almost unfathomable that a side could post 480 on the first day – and have their opponents reeling at 7/250 at one stage, 300 behind, what’s more – and fail to close out a victory. But it wasn’t through want of trying. After he delivered the final ball just after 5.30pm today, a pallid Peter Siddle looked like an extra on The Walking Dead such was his exhaustion after a lion-hearted 64 overs in the game.
Speaking of lion-hearted, off spinner Nathan Lyon (see what I did there?) toiled manfully through 94 overs to claim 5/140 for the match. 94 overs. That’s more than an entire day of cricket. Even though he perhaps lacked the cutting edge on Day 5 when spinners are expected to stand up, Lyon’s measured performance was especially gratifying in light of Imran Tahir’s 0-260 at well over a run a ball, statistically the worst bowling performance in Test history. Lyon is no Warnie, but if he can tie up an end and occasionally bamboozle a batsmen with the humbly-named ‘Jeff‘ delivery, he’s well worth his spot.
Lyon epitomises Michael Clarke’s Australia. A Baggy Green outfit that, by and large, is free of the scars of the 2010-11 massacre at the hands of England. Lyon and co. play their cricket with a wide-eyed enthusiasm, chirpy and sharp in the field with zinc smeared across their face, committing their share of errors (just ask Matthew Wade, who suffered his first real ‘iron gloves’ Test in Adelaide) but keen to bounce back with energy. As a collective, they’re like a youthful Mike Hussey, the evergreen Mr. Cricket.
The captain ought to take credit for that. Unlike his recent predecessors – Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting were all seen as suitable heirs to Australia’s cricket throne – Clarke was an unpopular choice but he’s silenced his doubters (for what it’s worth, myself included) comprehensively. His players obviously love him and he’s won over the cricket public. And four double tons in a calendar year: ’nuff said.
Part of the reason Clarke’s appointment drew criticism was Ponting’s demotion from the captaincy but retention in the XI, a setup we’re not used to Down Under. Ponting is struggling for runs, and as you would expect for a man of his advanced years, the wolves are baying at the door. I’d urge patience. Ponting has struggled against the South African quickies, no doubt. But Sri Lanka is on their way for three games around Christmas and their weaker attack could play the former skipper into some form. If not, it rather leaves the selectors in the lurch ahead of back-to-back Ashes series. But if John Inverarity and co. back Ponting, they need to back him to the hilt; dropping him after Sydney would expose a callow successor to the hardest arena in Test cricket in Old Blighty next northern summer, and that would be an immense gamble.
They’ve got another vexing hand to play this week, with Siddle and fellow quick Ben Hilfenhaus – who, in truth, would have expected a better return than 6 wickets in the first two Tests this summer – will be stiff as ironing boards ahead of the Perth match starting Friday, and Jimmy Pattinson heading back to Melbourne with a mystery side strain. Mitchell Starc will fill Pattinson’s spot; the lanky New South Welshman was probably due to be rotated into the side in any case. Whether or not either Siddle or Hilfenhaus will make way for a returning Mitchell Johnson – in form with WA and a good record on the pacey WACA pitch, but a reputation for waywardness – or Sheffield Shield toilers Josh Hazelwood and John Hastings will be a source of debate, especially considering bowlers’ workloads is the argument on everybody’s lips. I suspect the failure of Bobby Quiney in his two-game career that will be filed in the Scott Muller category of anonymity might ward the selectors off punting on relatively unproven domestic players (although Lyon has done his bit for the off-Broadway cricketer).
So now the cricket roadshow goes west. Australia’s batting is in fine fettle: Hussey continues to defy his age and Clarke has earned every column inch his Bradmanesque feats have been afforded. Both openers – Steady Eddy Cowan and Dashing Davie Warner – have posted tons this series and the return of Shane Watson will help shore up the top order. The bowlers, on the other hand, could struggle in Perth. The quickies will either be untried or exhausted, and the South African batting line up – knowing they’ve just staved off ten and a half hours of Aussie onslaught, courtesy of Faf Du Plessis’ stone-walled 110 not out – has their tail up.
The Aussies have largely dominated the South Africans so far but the visitors have clung on like Celtic against Barcelona, repelling wave after wave of attack and I suspect Perth is where Graeme Smith’s men will be able to strike on the counter, Tony Watt-style. Clarke and Lyon will, one day, sit on top of the Test cricket ladder. But at the moment, Smith’s grizzled Proteas deserve their crown.