In the not-so-distant future we may come to view the result of the first Test in Perth as representing something of a fork in the road for Australia and South Africa. For the Proteas, this was a win that was suggestive of the beginning of a new era and a brighter future; for Australia this was a worrying defeat in which their poor away form appears to be creeping into their previously impenetrable home record.
It is impossible not to look at the injury to Dale Steyn on the morning session of day two, that ruled the South Africa’s talisman out of not only the match and the series but the foreseeable future, as more broadly symbolic. While South Africa’s players appeared almost inspired by his absence, eager to fill the enormous void, Australia recoiled from the burden of expectation that the injury placed on their chances in the match, going on to lose ten wickets for 86 runs in a first innings batting collapse that didn’t explicitly lose them the game but gifted away a winning position from which, given they would be batting last, first innings parity was always going to be hard to recover from.
In the absence of Steyn, for South Africa the star of this match, although there were a few, has to be Kagiso Rabada, who was rightfully named Man of the Match for scalping 7 for 170 in the match, including five wickets in the second innings. Perhaps as important as his second innings five-for though was his first innings spell of reverse swing bowling which helped trigger the crucial collapse. His delivery to dismiss Usman Khawaja that boomeranged through bat and pad to send off stump flying was the second Australian wicket to fall and from there on, things unraveled very quickly for the hosts. His second innings dismissal of Adam Voges, beautifully set up with a sequence of deliveries was also hugely impressive - indicative more broadly of a young man who took it upon himself to lead South Africa’s attack in a time of great need.
But perhaps most importantly this was not a win about one individual or one performance. Speaking after the match South Africa’s captain Faf du Plessis said that to win being a seamer down is “99 percent impossible” and indeed, given the conditions in which the pitch was considerably flatter than both first innings suggested, it is hard to disagree with him. Vernon Philander and Keshav Maharaj both produced strong individual performances.
The absence of a seamer did not only strain the bowling though - it also increased the pressure on South Africa’s second innings to mount a target that could not only win them the game but, given that taking ten wickets with three frontline bowlers could be difficult, would draw them the game if they failed to make inroads. Thanks to largely to Dean Elgar and JP Duminy, and also to Quinton de Kock, they managed this.
It must have been particularly pleasing for South Africa that in Elgar and Duminy South Africa’s third innings was carried by two players who, although not under pressure for their places, are certainly not assured of their long-term positions in the team. Their partnership was a sight to behold: Elgar resolute in defence, efficient in attack and Duminy beautifully clinical, particularly on the drive. Their mammoth 250-run partnership combined with Vernon Philander and de Kock’s 116-run partnership of their own either side of the close on day three took South Africa’s total beyond Australia. Given that they were without AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla failed in both innings, that they scored as many runs as they did in the match is testament to their growing batting depth. Temba Bavuma’s first innings fifty was another bright spot.
For Australia this was a worrying defeat, however it is too soon to suggest a crisis. This was a bad performance but many of their players are proven in these conditions and it is not impossible to see Australia coming back in this series.
Their bowlers were good in the first innings and tough in the second. On the first day their pace and skill saw South Africa bowled out for an under-par total and in the second innings they stuck to their task admirably - perhaps marginally over-pitching to Duminy and straying in line to Elgar, but given the length of the innings that was to be expected.
The bowlers, as they have been so often of late, were let down by the batsmen which is the real cause for concern. The collapse of ten for 86 was disastrous and their top order efforts in the second innings, meek. Given the injury to Steyn, Australia should have realised that batting long and keeping South Africa in the field offered them the most direct route to success - as it was, in both innings Australia lacked the discipline and concentration to execute such a plan. Peter Nevill’s second innings vigil was demonstrative that it was possible, but given that even in the fourth innings they seemed more interested in chasing the runs than in saving the match, that attitude was not replicated throughout the team.
Australia’s chances in Hobart have been severely hampered by a number of injuries to key players. Shaun Marsh, who scored a battling fifty in the first innings and Peter Siddle, who brings both experience and consistency to the bowing attack, have been ruled out, while Voges, perhaps Australia’s best occupier of the crease is doubtful with a hamstring problem. The already discarded Joe Burns and perennially ignored Callum Ferguson have been called up. Mitchell Marsh can count himself lucky to still be involved and will probably be playing for his place in Hobart.
Australia will at least have time to regroup and formulate their strategy before the next Test, and in Smith and Warner they have two world-class batsmen, but the signs are not good and things could be about to get worse before they get better.