Proteas wilt as Aussies sweat blood to win

2009-03-02 00:00

AFTER hours of hard yakka in sweltering conditions, the Australians finally took the 10th wicket and were able to celebrate a well-deserved victory. Lacking the last-day experts of the recent past and without significant variety in the attack, the visitors offered blood sweat and tears and the combination paid dividends.

Contrary to most expectations, Ricky Ponting’s side thereby secured a second successive victory against notoriously slow-starting opponents. It is a result that will reverberate around the cricketing world. If the Australians are not exactly back in business, it’s clear they have not gone down the drain. Now the Proteas must win the remaining matches to claim top place in the rankings.

Tireless contributions from the frontline pacemen meant the pressure on the batsmen was unrelenting. Although the ball did not move much and the pitch had slowed down, the leather-flingers made life hard for opponents restricted to protecting their wickets. More by obligation than design, the batsmen crawled along, scoring 30 runs an hour, concentrating on resisting a committed attack.

None looked in serious trouble, but none looked like occupying the crease all day. Among them only Morne Morkel threw his wicket away. Sooner or later a mistake was made or a delivery misbehaved. Australia took their chances too, and needed no help from umpires.

In recent times, Australia have found it difficult to finish the job. Admittedly pitches do not seem to deteriorate as much these days — the deck at the Wanderers merely slowed down — but that was only part of the problem. Certainly teams chase better and targets previously considered impossible are regarded as within range. One-day cricket changed the outlook. But these are sideshows. Fifth-day chases are still hard work. Batting an entire day to win or save a match against a pressing attack requires nerve and skill. The odds favour the fielding side.

Previously, Australia could grind down opponents, crush them with five hours of intensity.

McGrath and Warne were at their most dangerous in exactly the situation the team encountered yesterday. With a wide range of skills, unshakeable self-belief and unwavering desire, they made fifth days dance to their tune.

Now this fresh but more limited quartet is trying to form its own tradition, to start its own winning habit. Only three specialists were nominated. It was bad thinking. An attack lacking great operators needs more members, not fewer; more variety, not less.

Given the task of taking their team to victory on a slowing pitch, the incumbents worked hard as play resumed. They were confronted by a sleeping surface, warm sunshine, soft ball and a superb overnight pair, including one batsman relieved to have collected his 10 000th Test run and another desperate to produce a long innings. But this attack is young and sturdy enough to maintain its energy on the stickiest of days.

Mitchell Johnson is developing his inswinger, while Peter Siddle belongs in the Merv Hughes tradition of fast bowlers with huge hearts. The Victorian took the first wicket as Hashim Amla tried to push the score along. Later he struck again as JP Duminy edged to slip, and after tea he claimed the penultimate pole as Paul Harris fended. Ben Hilfenhaus keeps a tight line and his off-cutter to remove Mark Boucher was a telling delivery.

Andrew McDonald served his purpose, keeping the pressure on the batsmen, seldom sending down a loose delivery. A contentious selection, his height and control make him a handful on tracks with uneven bounce. Indeed he took the morning’s second wicket as a cutter jagged back into AB De Villiers’s pads. He nagged away and bowled well enough to persuade supporters to start singing Old McDonald Had a Farm — the hosts could feel aggrieved. Haddin was spared on slender evidence, but subsequently Kallis was spared as the extra umpire decided that Johnson’s inswinger had landed a slither outside leg stick. Referrals continue to provoke hot debate. Not that the great man lasted much longer as he edged a fierce drive on to his stumps.

Ponting’s bowlers did not let him down as the Australians sweated buckets in a search for wickets and a win. Batsmen fell sporadically as a gripping contest reached its conclusion. South Africa never goes down without a fight, but this time the Australians were too hot to handle.

Probably the match was won and lost in the first innings. Ponting’s reviving side proved that it could still polish off a wounded opponent. It would have been a most satisfying victory.

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