Mitchell Starc’s is labelled the ‘The Mop’ in the Australian cricket fraternity for his ability to wipe out the opposition tail-end batsmen. In the first Test match, the Australian left-arm paceman lived up to his nickname by decimating the South African lower order in both innings to give Australia a 1-0 lead in the four-Test series.
Starc not only finished the Test with match figures of 9-109, but also proved his credentials as the most lethal reverse swing exponent since the infamous Pakistan pair of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.
At the end of the day, it was Starc's supreme skills that led to South African losing 4-4 in the first innings and 4-8 in the second innings, and extinguished any fight the hosts had left in them. On the the other side, Australia's tail, led by Mitchell Marsh, had added 100 runs for the last four wickets. In a highly competitive series it would the contribution from the tail that would prove to be decisive. As Faf Du Plessis put it, "we needed to be more ruthless against their tail-enders”.
While South Africa might be kicking themselves for the lower-order collapse in the first innings, they would also be mindful of the threat Starc poses on an abrasive track. During their last visit to the Rainbow Nation, Australia lacked a lethal reverse swing exponent and South Africa were quick to prepare a surface that negated the pace and bounce of Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle, but they would have learnt Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins are a different kettle of fish.
In the past, preparing a slow and low track might have been the Achilles' heal of Australians, but with an abundance of subcontinent sojourns over the past two years and Starc’s ability with the old ball, it is not as easy to deflate the current Australian team on a surface that was prepared in Durban.
Perhaps the South African team was still stuck in time or there was a lack of faith in their own batting against the Australian pace battery. Either way, in the series that was termed as the ‘pace odyssey’, the formidable pace battery of Australia out-bowled and outwitted their opponents.
On a pitch that was sluggish, the trio of Australian fast bowlers took 15 of the 20 wickets, while Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel could only manage 10 between them.
Apart from Starc, one of the other major reasons why Australia were able to get ahead in the Test match was the batting of Mitchell Marsh. Often criticised for his hard hands, the Western Australian produced arguably his most significant innings in the Test arena.
One of the biggest improvements in Marsh’s game in the last few months has been his ability to play the ball closer to the body and not plant his left foot across his stumps. Throughout his innings of 96, Marsh ensured he stayed leg-side of the reverse swinging ball and played as late as possible. Against the spin of Keshav Maharaj, realising the nature of the pitch, he opted to play off the back-foot, a tactic that made Maharaj push the ball quicker through the air, presenting Marsh a few freebies that he was able to pick off with ease through the cut or the back foot drive.
In the past, the early wickets of Steve Smith and David Warner had led an Australian collapse, but recently, thanks to the form of Marsh brothers in the middle order, along with Tim Paine’s grittiness, the vulnerable middle order is looking more stable, as was evident in the first Test. Study the partnerships and you realise the Australians rarely lost wickets in clumps, a further indication that his batting is starting to mature.
South Africa, on the other hand, will be mighty pleased with Aiden Markram. His ability to repel the Australian bowling quartet and the verbals is a sign that he belongs in Test cricket. Apart from Hashim Amla, who can now be termed as Hazlewood’s bunny, no other batsmen fell to a dedicated plan. AB de Villiers looked untroubled throughout his innings, Quinton de Kock found his touch and even Theunis de Bruyn showed glimpses that seemed to indicate he has the game to prosper at the elite level.
The hosts will also take great belief in the way they negotiated Nathan Lyon on a pitch that aided his skills. The way Maharaj out thought the Australian top order will give Du Plessis the belief in his spinner and his ability to hold up an end. The problem lies in the fact that while Rabada and Philander can be attacking, Morkel’s inability to create pressure or his lack of potency with the old ball on a slow surface makes him vulnerable.
Australia will buoyed by the fact that despite the lack of impact with the bat from Smith and Warner, they were able to brush South Africa aside. South Africa, meanwhile, know that they need to find a solution to Starc against a reverse swinging ball.
It might not be desperate times as yet, but the Proteas have realised defeating Australia on slow-natured surfaces is not as easy as it used to be. It might be time to trust their batting on a seaming deck and back the likes of Philander to outdo the Australian pacers and trust the formidable batting of De Villiers, Amla and Du Plessis. They have learnt if it reverses, then Starc will have further enhanced his reputation as the ‘The Mop’.