"Both teams were 160 for 5 in all four innings, so it shows the learning we can take is to be more ruthless with their tail. Once they got through the first seven or eight batters, it was pretty easy to get through our tail," South African skipper Faf du Plessis had said after the first Test in Durban. He had a point. Australia were 177/5 in the first innings but went on to add 174 more runs with Mitchell Marsh rallying together a brazen tail. South Africa, on the other hand, collapsed from 150/6 to 162 all out, losing their last four wickets for 12 runs.
The second time around, the visitors once again fought back to make 227 from 175/6 — the last four wickets contributing 52 runs while the hosts lost their last four for 15 runs. Apparently, the sole difference between the two teams rest in the disparity of runs that have come from their lower order.
While Australia's top-six racked up 412 runs in the Test, South Africa's did slightly better with 433 runs. However, the last four wickets contributed 166 of Australia's runs while it just gave South Africa 27 runs across two innings, appalling if you consider that only thrice have teams produced lesser runs from the bottom four in Tests since the turn of the century.
The difference essentially has been Mitchell Starc. The seamer was unplayable with the old ball, generating reverse swing from around the wicket and targetting the stumps to bring about the downfall of the tailenders.
Of Starc's 179 Test wickets, 66 have been of batsmen from No 7 -11, or 37 percent of the total. Dig further and you notice that of the 66 scalps, 27 are bowled and six are lbw. This virtually means that 50 percent of the time, Starc does not even need a fielder to send a tailender back.
Starc's sensational reverse swing was too hot to handle even for the top-order batsmen and it would really be unrealistic to expect the tail to contribute when the Aussie is in that kind of form. However, the difference between the two teams is in the runs they score after the fall of the sixth wicket.
It's not the first time that reverse swing had made headlines in South Africa. It happened in 2014 as well during Australia's previous tour to the Rainbow Nation. Then, a certain Dale Steyn wreaked havoc with the old ball in Port Elizabeth — venue of the second Test — and triggered a collapse that saw the hosts grab their only win in the series. The celebrations, though, were marred by David Warner's ball-tampering allegations against AB de Villiers.
Both teams got the ball to reverse in Durban but Australia used it to better effect, targetting the stumps and putting batsmen in two minds. The only South African bowler who posed a few questions with reverse swing was Kagiso Rabada but even he was inconsistent with his channels and lacked quality support from the other end.
With Dale Steyn not expected to be fit before the third Test at the least, South Africa will have to make do with Rabada in Port Elizabeth, where the wicket is generally similar to that in Kingsmead.
The seamers should look to bowl fuller and more at the stumps when the ball starts reversing, something the Proteas did not do anywhere as well as the Aussie pace battery. The focus will also be on how their batsmen front up against Starc. The amount of confidence the left-arm seamer's Man of the Match winning show has instilled in the Aussies can be understood from coach Darren Lehmann's bullish remark post the first Test.
"I don't mind the ball moving,” Lehmann had adamantly stated in the aftermath of a 118 run victory.
Ironically, South Africa had brought in an extra batter at No 7 to counter Australia's intimidating bowling attack. They had stuck to a five-bowler theory right through the India series but opted for better protection with the willow, particularly owing to Quinton de Kock's slump in form.
Theunis de Bruyn, who benefitted from Ottis Gibson's change of plans, put in a gritty display in the second innings, combining with Aiden Markram in a 87-run stand that rekindled South Africa's belief at one point of time on Day 4 in Durban. As such, that plan should still stay the same.
However, the runs dried up from No 8 onwards where Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, and Kagiso Rabada are considered capable of wielding the willow well.
Philander has three half-centuries since 2015 in Tests and averages 20.23, facing more than 1200 balls whereas Rabada and Maharaj have also contributed reasonably well.
South Africa's No 8-11 have contributed on an average 54 runs in the past two years according to CricViz, which is fourth best among Test nations. That said,it is unrealistic to expect them to make big runs if Starc hits his groove yet again.
Playing out more balls could be even more crucial, particularly if there is a main batsman at the other end as was the case at Durban in either innings. The Proteas lost their last four wickets in the space of 13 balls in the first innings which left AB de Villiers stranded at one end, unbeaten on 71.
In the second, they lost three wickets in the space of five balls which left Quinton de Kock to hang around with No 11 Morne Morkel. The duo survived more than ten overs but with part-timers operating just to rest Starc's legs before the new ball, it can be safely said that Australia barely gave their best against Morkel for most of those overs. Plus, the they managed just 8 runs from 76 balls. With a spread-out field, de Kock really had little option to score and retain strike and this resulted in very few runs being added.
However, if one of Philander, Rabada or Maharaj can occupy the crease, the Aussies could be derailed off their plans, particularly with Mitchell Starc assigned to bowl in short, pacy bursts. Come Friday, and the focus will be on bridging the gulf between the two lower-orders which seems the only factor separating two closely-contesting teams.