Dean Elgar summed it up in the most simplistic way. “There’s been so much noise and I think people have actually forgotten that there’s such a great series happening between two extremely strong and competitive teams.”
Ever since South Africa levelled the series in Port Elizabeth nine days ago, the only name that has been on everyone’s lips has been that of Kagiso Rabada. But as Elgar correctly states, the controversies on the field have overshadowed the quality of cricket on the field. Both the Test matches thus far have been engrossing to say the least, the power of balance has hinged on one partnership or a single spell of bowling.
Undoubtedly, Rabada has been the star performer in the series, but others, such as Elgar, Hashim Amla and even a Keshav Maharaj have made decisive contributions that have allowed Rabada to go about his business. Apart from Faf Du Plessis, the rest of the Proteas batsmen have found a way to score runs. There is a thought of bringing in Temba Bavuma for Theunis de Bruyn, but with the lack of game time it is highly unlikely South Africa will make the change.
The green deck and the cool climate predicted during the match, along with the lush square, means reverse swing will play a less prominent role compared to Durban and Port Elizabeth. The seaming conditions will present a challenge for the batsmen once again and any score in excess of 300 or 350, in any innings of the Test match would be considered a healthy score. This means wearing the shine off the new ball will become priceless asset.
In Port Elizabeth, Australian openers did all the hard work, but their middle order failed to cash in. On the contrary, AB de Villers took full advantage of the resilient four-hour stand between Amla and Elgar. Australia will be desperate to bowl at De Villiers with the new Kookaburra ball. In the lead up to the Test, Australian fast bowler, Josh Hazlewood said that he was aware of threat De Villers poses.
“We probably haven’t bowled as well with the new ball, it would be nice to have a crack at De Villers early on, but for that we need get through the top three.”
The lack of reverse swing will potentially negate Mitchell Starc, and his sore calf is a slight concern ahead of the Test match. It means there is more onus on Hazlewood to deliver, as he is considered the most threatening bowler in seam-friendly conditions. Mitchell Marsh’s groin injury also means there is a chance that he may not bowl in Cape Town, putting extra pressure on Pat Cummins and Hazlewood to slice through the South African top-order.
Apart from De Villiers, the Australia bowlers have found chinks in the armours of most of the Proteas batsmen. Amla’s front pad still remains a prime target. Nathan Lyon has lured Elgar into false strokes and also knocked over Quinton de Kock twice already. The full ball has exposed Du Plessis as wanting and even Aiden Markram’s technique was found wanting in Port Elizabeth. Australia will feel, if they can get De Villers early, then South African can be exposed on any type of pitch.
On the other hand, all of the Australian batsmen apart from Cameron Bancroft have made half centuries at various stages. But at the same time, none of them have been able to convert their starts and score a century.
Steve Smith has now gone 14 innings without a century against South Africa. David Warner has gone 10 innings without a ton. Shaun Marsh has been a victim of Rabada’s reverse swing and Usman Khawaja is still guilty of poking at deliveries outside off-stump. With the ball expected to seam and move through the air, the Australian top order will face a tough task against Vernon Philander. The South African new-ball bowler has an incredible record on his home turf, having taken 47 wickets at 16.34 at a staggering strike rate of just 33.9. Australia need to curb his skills and find a way to put him under pressure.
Arguably, the find of the tour with the willow for Australia this series has been Mitchell Marsh. His dismissal in the first over of the fourth morning in Port Elizabeth prevented the visitors from posting a score that would have allowed Lyon the luxury of an extra 70 runs to perhaps bowl out South Africa on a pitch that was starting to turn.
While Lyon has been economical through the campaign, Australia need him to take wickets. Lyon’s six wickets have come at an average of 39.66. On the other side, Keshav Maharaj has been instrumental, and with 11 wickets, he is the second highest wicket-taker for South Africa. It is also fair to say that Maharaj has had the wood on the Australian skipper having already dismissed him twice in the series. Maharaj has used the shiny side of the old ball, to drift the ball into Smith and then beat the outside of his bat. To sum it up, Maharaj has out-bowled his competitors and out-thought the Australian batsmen.
In a series that has been enthralling so far, it will be the smaller battles that will dictate the fortune of the match. While reverse swing was a prominent feature in the first two Tests, the seam-friendly conditions will mean the new ball will become crucial and the team that can get through the tough periods of play is likely to come out on top. As Elgar rightly pointed out, it should be the quality of the cricket that should be the talking point in the series and not the banter. Let’s hope he is right.