South Africa bounce back on eventful day

South Africa 242 and 2 for 104 (Elgar 46*, Duminy 34*) lead Australia 244 (Warner 97, S Marsh 63, Philander 4-86, Maharaj 3-56) by 102 runs
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When Australia and South Africa play, you should expect the unexpected. Not literally, of course, because then it wouldn’t be unexpected anymore. But in recent Tests between these two nations there have typically been more swings than a children’s playground, more roundabouts than Canberra. It is always hard to predict the direction of the contest. Such has been the case over the first two days at the WACA.

The second morning began with Australia firmly on top; the third will start with South Africa in a position of strength. By stumps on day two, South Africa had a lead of 102 runs with eight wickets in hand, a quite unbelievable state of affairs only eight hours earlier. Dean Elgar was on 46 and JP Duminy had 34, and South Africa had completely loosened the tight grip Australia had held on the match the previous evening.

It all started with David Warner dabbling outside off and edging Dale Steyn to slip on 97. Strange things then started to happen. Firstly, Steyn failed to complete his next over; clutching his right shoulder he walked off the field, a sorry sight for South African fans, who only once in the past eight years have seen their team win a Test without him.

But without their leader, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and debutant Keshav Maharaj ran through Australia’s order with renewed vigour, completing a remarkable collapse of 10 for 86 that began with the single wicket taken by South Africa’s best bowler, perhaps of all time, who was otherwise absent. Philander became the leader, and they applied constant pressure on Australia’s batsmen.

Philander and Rabada found some reverse swing, and Maharaj bowled impressively, keeping things tight enough at his end while also picking up a few wickets. He is the first specialist spinner in Test history to make his Test debut at the pace-friendly WACA, and he justified his inclusion by dismissing Australia’s captain Steven Smith, wicketkeeper Peter Nevill, and then Mitchell Starc.

The wicket of Smith was particularly jaw-dropping, mostly for the brazen – though legitimate – lbw decision given by umpire Aleem Dar. Smith, yet to score, advanced down the pitch from his fourth delivery and could not get bat on ball, which prompted a zealous appeal from Maharaj but a half-hearted one from his team-mates. It was, as the police might say, just a routine enquiry – until Dar unholstered his finger.

Smith looked dumbstruck, and immediately asked for a review. The broadcaster’s technology suggested he was well down the pitch – 2.8 metres from the stumps when struck – but the ball was hitting in line, and was going on to clip the top of leg stump. The umpire’s decision stood: Maharaj had his first Test wicket, and Australia were starting to wobble at 3 for 168.

Already Usman Khawaja had been and gone, bowled for 4 by a beauty from Rabada, who angled one in from around the wicket and sneaked through Khawaja’s defences. Shaun Marsh, who had batted so solidly with Warner in that opening stand and had reached 63, fell to a similar delivery from Philander – he did get his pad in the way, but Nigel Llong’s lbw decision was also upheld on review.

There was precious little resistance from the rest of Australia’s order, although Adam Voges and Peter Nevill at least reached the 20s. But Mitchell Marsh, under pressure to hold the No.6 spot after selector Rod Marsh said last week “he needs to get a Test hundred I reckon”, fell a hundred runs short. He was lbw for an eight-ball duck to Philander, and perhaps the biggest worry was the distance by which he missed the ball.

Voges spooned a return catch to Rabada for 27, Starc was caught at midwicket for a duck off Maharaj, Nevill was caught at slip off Maharaj for 23 (though was unlucky Australia’s reviews were exhausted, for he appeared not to have touched the ball), Josh Hazlewood was taken at gully off Philander for 4, and Nathan Lyon was caught at slip off Philander for 0. Peter Siddle remained unbeaten on 18, having helped Australia squeeze into the lead.

It was a quite remarkable collapse; not on the scale of Australia’s 47 all out in Cape Town, of course, but remarkable mostly because South Africa achieved all but one of the wickets without their best bowler. Australia went rapidly from complete dominance to serious danger of conceding a first-innings lead. By the change of innings, the Test was effectively all square.

Still, South Africa needed to avoid the kind of top-order wobbles that had left them at 4 for 32 on the first morning. Stephen Cook and Elgar provided a more solid opening stand on this occasion, although Cook still could not survive for too long, and was caught for 12 pulling Siddle to midwicket.

The loss of Hashim Amla, who chopped on to Hazlewood for 1 – his first-innings duck meant a Test aggregate of one run in this match, equalling his career worst – had the potential to give Australia the momentum, but they could not find another breakthrough. By stumps, Elgar and Duminy had moved the total on to 2 for 104.

On the first day, Australia’s bowlers had run through South Africa for 242, and their openers had then cruised to 105 without loss. The question was not whether Australia would take the lead, but by how much. That was even more the case when the score moved along to 0 for 158. Then the unexpected began to happen. Who knows, then, what might happen on day three?

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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