19 December 2008.
After vacillating for two days, the Perth Test finally found its man. A stunning intervention from Mitchell Johnson changed the course of the contest and probably the series.
His burst came out of the blue and was notable for its impact. Previously, wickets had fallen in patches, but now the batting was torn apart.
Nothing much had happened for an hour or two until the lofty left-hander took the ball and started to make it talk. Till then, the pitch had seemed docile and the bowlers weary. Except those eager for stumps, everyone was waiting for the second new ball.
It was a particularly passive period of play. Jacques Kallis and A .B. Villers were happily tapping the ball around.
It proved to be the calm before the storm. South Africa will look back on the day and wonder what went wrong. Graeme Smith and company had chances to take charge, but did not take any of them. Accordingly, the match swung in the breeze until Hurricane Johnson came along. It was a stunning performance from a mild and improving cricketer built along the lines favoured on basketball courts.
Johnson’s spell was a reminder that Australia remain the yardstick. Any batsman hoping to command respect must score runs against these opponents or risk condemnation as a lightweight. A player may score a trillion runs against weaker teams, occupy a high position in the rankings, please coaches and poets and possibly even his wife, but until he has smacked the Aussies around a few times, he will be dismissed as an imposter.
Champions are by nature demanding. No matter that they seem down in the dumps, they always fight back. And so it was yesterday.
As they walked out to bat, Smith, Hashim Amla and Kallis knew they had to outlast a powerful opponent. They also had to set the record straight.
Smith has underperformed against the Australians, averaging 22, and Amla had not played against them while Kallis has been out of sorts. Moreover they could expect no help from a home team bound to bowl more consistently than the visiting leather-flingers.
And so it proved as the hosts kept a fuller length, set tighter fields and found a spinner capable of delivering an occasional doozy. Ricky Ponting and company outwitted a touring think tank that placed one man in front of the wicket on the off-side, thereby forcing the pacemen to drop short.
For quite some time Smith and Amla met the challenge. Smith is a fine batsman burdened by a body that is falling apart years ahead of schedule. Over the years, he has developed an idiosyncratic game. As usual, he glided the ball off his pads and pounced on anything dropping short. It was not exactly a commanding contribution, but he did seem more worried about his elbow than his opponents.
Amla was immaculate, flicking the ball off hip and pads, opening the face of his bat to pierce backward point, straight driving with aplomb and even pulling off his chin.
In the nets before play he had sat serenely in a chair and he was likewise unruffled at the crease. His bat was broad and his game lacked any obvious flaw. Watching his wristwork and late flourishes, the Australians must have felt they were back in Nagpur, trying to remove V.V.S. Laxman and others who have passed this test many times. Fifteen years ago, he could not have played cricket for his country.
Already the visitors had spurned several chances to impose themselves. Could they escape the Australians this time? They could not.
Prepared to flight the ball and determined to spin it, Jason Krejza tossed his off-breaks into a spinnaker wind and encouraged his foes to drive. Oscar Wilde said he could resist anything except temptation. Although more restrained by disposition, Amla tried to whip the ball through mid-wicket but was beaten as the ball dropped. It was a classical dismissal. Amla was lured to his doom.
Throughout, wickets had fallen in pairs and the trend continued as Smith forgot to move his feet. Perhaps his sore elbow was preying on his mind. At any rate he left with the air of a man in physical as well as mental pain.
Kallis and de Villiers tried to repair the damage. Despite his impressive start and stature, Kallis averages 38 against these opponents, 15 more than his colleague. They worked hard and remained imperturbable. Once again, the visitors appeared to be on top. Once again it was an illusion.
Australia remained patient and eventually were rewarded. Johnson’s devastating burst changed everything. De Villiers and Kallis nibbled and Duminy was dumbfounded.
None of the South Africans lasted the course. None of them imposed himself. Several had the opportunity but, in the end, the day belonged to a lanky and increasingly resourceful paceman. By stumps, the Australians had their opponents in a vice-like grip. They are unlikely to let go.