When Australia ended Day 1 of the Durban Test at 225/5, there was a rather unanimous feeling at least on social media that South Africa were a touch ahead in the game given that they had seen the back of the towering figure in the Aussie line-up, Steve Smith. Day 2 proved to be a fitting reply to all those critics of Australia out there for they hadn't taken into account what Mitchell Starc could do when truly pumped up.
Buoyed by a solid knock from Mitchell Marsh, Australia made 351 on a sluggish Durban wicket but they still needed to get past a reasonably good-looking South African batting line-up (at least on paper). Starc's very first over and the first over of the innings was a sign of things to come.
He sent down a rip-roaring 145 kmph ball first up to Dean Elgar and another at 152 kmph in the very first over. When Aiden Markram came on strike in the next over, Starc nipped the ball away from the right-hander and beat him on the outside edge. Yet, after a fiery four-over spell of searing pace, Starc had no wickets to show. He was replaced in the attack by Nathan Lyon, who immediately picked up two wickets, but that had always been Australia's plan.
They would use Starc and Pat Cummins in short bursts while Josh Hazlewood and Lyon would shoulder the burden of keeping things quiet from one end. Even then, not even Smith would have imagined the kind of fury that Starc was about to unleash on the South Africans in Durban late in the evening.
He returned to the attack in the 28th over – 20 overs after he had sent down a top-notch opening spell – with South Africa's favourite pair of AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis once again looking threatening. It took the left-arm seamer just two balls to send back the settled South African skipper. Starc came around the stumps – a tactic he has quite often employed to destructive effect on slower surfaces, most memorably in Sri Lanka two years back – and moved the ball away from the right-hander to force a nick to Tim Paine behind the stumps.
If South Africa hadn't watched Starc on these kind of surfaces prior to this, they would have had no idea of the tsunami of unplayable deliveries that was about to strike them. The ball was reversing for the left-arm seamer and Starc dons a Wasim Akram avatar when that happens. Poor Theunis de Bruyn could barely have had a more terrifying welcome back to international cricket. He merely poked at another of Starc's Jaffas from around the wicket despite appearing the most comfortable South Africa A batsman in the warm-up game prior to this Test.
Since the start of 2017, when Mitchell Starc goes around the wicket to the right-hander, he averages 15.33. #SAvAUS
— The Cricket Prof. (@CricProf) March 2, 2018
However, it was Starc's final spell that tore the hosts' plans apart and shifted the aces – held for most of Day 2 by a spectacular, outrageously comfortable de Villiers - Australia's way. Much like his free-spirited 25-ball 35 earlier in the day, Starc nonchalantly knocked over three South African tail-enders in eight balls to seal the South African innings as de Villiers, all class and flamboyance throughout the day, watched helplessly from the other end.
For two teams equally fierce and competent, the finer details make a telling difference. It is only Day 2 of a long series but it seems like that minute distinction between these teams is their largely contrasting lower order.
While Australia racked up 114 runs from the fall of their sixth wicket to that of their final batsman, all South Africa could manage was a feeble 12 runs (this with de Villiers batting at one end). The critical factor in this huge difference was a dazzling Starc who struck a superb 35 in a run-a-ball 49-run stand with Marsh before returning with the ball to clean up South Africa's tail and leave de Villiers stranded. It barely mattered that the South African maestro had played Starc's thunderbolts with authority as he turned spectator in the final few minutes of the hosts' innings.
Australia's lower order hadn't been their strongest suit a few months ago, but ever since they revamped their lower middle order, it is assuming a much more assured form. Marsh, Paine, Starc and Cummins gave Joe Root headaches time and again with the bat during the Ashes and seems intent on doing the same to du Plessis.
South Africa, on the other hand, had played with a five-bowler theory against India in the last series, but had added a seventh batting option here at Durban to strengthen an extraordinarily long tail. It amounted to nothing as Starc, relentless, right on the money and downright hostile, knocked over the South African batsmen like nine pins with sharp reverse swing.
Perhaps Starc's debut spell in the country is a lesson for South Africa's management on how to use their own version of a pacy strike bowler, Kagiso Rabada. The Australian seamer sent down the least number of overs among their four bowlers but created the biggest impact for he bowled in short, pacy bursts akin to Mitchell Johnson in the 2013 Ashes Down Under.
On the other hand, Rabada has bowled a whopping 2,936 balls in Tests since the start of 2017, the most by any fast bowler. He has also picked up the most number of wickets by any bowler in this timeframe (74 in 15 matches) but in a series of fine margins, South Africa will need to learn to use him the right way. Starc could be wayward and inconsistent at times but when he strikes the right chords, more often than not he leaves the opposition in shambles. With the sluggish surface playing into his hands, not even de Villiers' pristine half-century could save South Africa against Starc's wrath.