So the decision to send Australia in to bat on the first day of the first Test at SuperSport Park yesterday perhaps should not have been as surprising as it was. Except that the conditions really did not justify it: there was bright sunshine, the temperature was already high, the pitch had a slight greenish-yellow tinge to it but nothing out of the ordinary. It was the sort of day that just feels like a “batting day”.
The first session was always going to be tough for batsmen and the Australians struggled to 83 for three at lunch and were 98 for four soon after the break. But by the close of play, Shaun Marsh and Steven Smith had added 199 to take the tourists through to 297 for four at stumps.
Apart from not being at their sharpest, once again starting a Test series slowly, South Africa were guilty of not playing what was in front of them; the statistical history might have said one thing, but the here and now of the actual conditions were suggesting the opposite.
Coach Russell Domingo is known to be an ardent follower of statistics and Ryan McLaren admitted after the day’s play that the decision at the toss had been motivated by past history.
“The stats going into the game say enough – in most games, the team bowling first ends up winning, it’s a high percentage and it’s what’s worked in the past,” McLaren said.
Yesterday, however, it was a case of the pitch offering the usual amount of assistance for the first hour and then flattening out.
“The ball moved around a bit in the beginning, but it was slowish off the pitch. And then the ball got softer and the pitch became slower and flatter as the day went on,” McLaren admitted.
The overall record at Centurion indicates that the team batting second have won the Test 10 times in 19 matches, which is only slightly greater than 50%. Australia, having not appeared here since 1997, just played what was in front of them.
“We were surprised actually that we were sent in to bat,” Steven Smith said. “We thought it would be quite tough this morning, but if you get through that initial period then it would be quite nice for batting. And there is good pace and bounce in the wicket and if you get through the start, then it is good for batting.
“There are a few cracks forming too and, with the heat overhead, we’re hoping to get a big total and then use those cracks.”
South Africa’s bowlers toiled admirably, but were not at their sharpest. Dale Steyn, suffering from a stomach bug, deserves special mention for bowling 20 overs and taking two for 54.
His strikes removed dangermen David Warner (12) and Michael Clarke (23), but it’s apparent that there is a definite release in pressure once the seamers come out of the South African attack.
Australia were precariously placed on 113 for four after 40 overs midway through the second session when Robin Peterson came on to bowl. Marsh and Smith hit 22 runs off his four overs to change the momentum and added 63 runs in the 14 overs before tea.
Smith, originally a limited-overs dasher, plays with a refreshing simplicity and plenty of good sense, and he admitted that tightening up his technique and being more patient have been the two major factors in his recent success.
Marsh, able to average no more than 35.02 in first-class cricket, went to his second Test century and surprised everyone. A controversial selection, his inclusion was a hunch that did pay off and is going to be celebrated for a long while.
The left-hander was able to play within himself, occupying the crease for five-and-three-quarter hours, but he was accomplished when driving down the ground or cutting.
“Marsh and Smith played really well, you have to give credit to them. Shaun showed how good a player he is, he was under pressure, he took a few blows, but he adapted well,” McLaren said.
South Africa took more blows on the first day than Australia, but they have shown time and time again that they can adapt to misfortune, even if much of it was self-inflicted right at the start of the day.