So poor has South Africa’s performance been in the first Test against Australia at SuperSport Park that AB de Villiers is probably the only one worthy of a pass mark for their efforts.
De Villiers was the only batsman who didn’t capitulate in the face of the ferocious Mitchell Johnson onslaught, batting with remarkable assurance in scoring his 91 out of a dismal total of 206. Quick of mind, feet and hands, De Villiers was simply a class apart.
It is hard to know quite why the rest of the South African team have put in such a lacklustre, soft performance. They had 10 days’ preparation before the first Test and pronounced themselves ready for action on the eve of the game.
Which suggests the malaise is mental more than anything else. And there have been numerous examples of muddled thinking seriously jeopardising their chances in the first Test.
After 40 overs in the Australian second innings, exactly six percent of the deliveries South Africa had bowled would have hit the stumps, a ridiculously low figure especially on a pitch with inconsistent bounce that brings lbw into play in a big way. But it was how South Africa bowled in the first innings as well, with too much line-and-length stuff outside off stump that the Aussies just left alone and not enough bowling that targeted the stumps or the body.
South Africa also erred strategically in how they played Johnson, whose figures of seven for 68 were the second-best recorded in Tests at Centurion, behind Kyle Abbott’s stunning seven for 29 on debut against Pakistan last summer.
The top-order seemed intent on trying to play Johnson’s short-pitched thunderbolts with the bat, instead of swaying out of the line and dropping the hands and bat out of the danger zone.
Australia’s batsmen handled Morne Morkel’s intimidatory deliveries much better by simply getting out of the way.
South Africa’s sloppy fielding yesterday – centurion David Warner was dropped three times – was another clear sign that the wheels were falling off.
There isn’t much South Africa can do ahead of the second Test in terms of changing personnel. The XI for Centurion were generally considered to be the best players available, but unfortunately they just didn’t pitch for the contest.
Young batsmen like Quinton de Kock and Stiaan van Zyl certainly have their backers, but are they really more likely to succeed than the people they are replacing? Alviro Petersen and JP Duminy are the two South African batsmen under the most pressure, and both were dismissed in most disappointing fashion in the first innings.
Robin Peterson, chosen for his greater accuracy and ability to do the holding role, was taken for a hundred runs in his first 26 overs in this Test, which makes one wonder whether the selectors shouldn’t just go for the greater wicket-taking ability of Imran Tahir, even if he is also expensive.
Coach Russell Domingo is known for his love of statistics and it would be interesting to know whether the poor decision to bowl first upon winning the toss was mostly motivated by him or whether it was the captain’s call.
Statistics are good for establishing trends at grounds, but they can never supersede the conditions that are actually in front of the team.
Domingo and bowling coach Allan Donald have both admitted that their intensity was not what it should have been. If the South Africans have the courage to face their shortcomings at Centurion with honesty, then they could yet rebound into contention in this series.
South Africa would appear to have used up their nine lives, but there is way too much talent in the team for them to be manhandled the way they have been by Australia. The brilliant Johnson apart, South Africa’s players should be standing toe-to-toe with their counterparts. They need to rediscover the passion that took them to number one, and quickly too, because the pretenders to the throne look ready to ascend.