When the batsmen did the bowlers’ work for them

2011-11-12 00:00

MADNESS, chaos, calamity and bizarre were the sorts of words thrown about Newlands as the Australians collapsed to 9/21 on Thursday.

A few others might be added, including: inept, irresolute, reckless, feckless and foolish.

It’s all very well to talk about the glorious uncertainties of the game, the fascination of Test cricket and the unreliable nature of the pitch. But the fact remains that in the space of 18 overs the Australians moved from an apparently indomitable position and found themselves fighting for their cricketing lives.

As future generations study the scorecard they will wonder what on earth happened on that day in Cape Town when 12 wickets fell for 60 runs in a session and the visitors came within a whisker of scoring the lowest total ever recorded in 2 016 Tests. They will ask what demons came over the track, what devils came into the bowling, what dark forces played tricks on the batsmen.

They will seek answers from witnesses themselves trying to come to terms with the events, trying to explain the inexplicable.

A hundred years ago it was not unknown for a new cricket nation to be dismissed for 20 or 30. The pitches were rough and sometimes wet, the players were often inexperienced and out of their depth and the batsmen were given little protection.

Nowadays the players are professionals, fit, seasoned, trained and surrounded by advisers. It is just about conceivable that they might fall for 80 or 90, as did the hosts in their first innings. But 9/21?

Of course the South Africans deserve credit for producing one of the most extraordinary rallies the game has known. If nothing else it tells of a sturdy spirit. Between innings the cause seemed lost. Skittled for 96, the Proteas were facing a devastating defeat. Indeed they only avoided the follow-on thanks to a bold last wicket partnership between two unlikely lads. Even so they had fallen 188 runs behind on the first innings.

Most of them had not played a proper innings since January and the pitch was playing up. It did not bode well. Ten overs later they were well placed to win the match.

By then the might of Australia had been reduced to 9/21.

If the Proteas deserve praise, though, the Australians cannot escape censure. It is not enough to shrug and say “that is cricket”. A bowler’s primary task is to put batsmen off their games, disturb their usual rhythms.

On this occasion the Australians did their work for them. Batsman after batsman walked to the crease in a fragile state of mind, convinced that the pitch was unplayable and that the only course of action was to score as many as possible as quickly as possible.

Far from surviving the new ball, thereby removing their opponents’ last vestige of hope, most of the batsmen attacked with abandon. Early wickets alone could bring the hosts back into the match, and even that was a long shot. But the visitors obliged with a display that bordered on the reckless. Not every batsmen was equally to blame, and one or two were innocent of all charges, but the innings lacked anything resembling a backbone

Shane Watson started the rot with a drive that cleared gully followed by another forcing shot that brought about his downfall. Ricky Ponting did his utmost to survive the new ball but the sight of him shuffling across the crease did little to suggest longevity.

Presently he was trapped in front, though the verdict was marginal.

Phil Hughes was undone by a lifter from Morné Morkel that took the shoulder of his bat and arrived at third slip about grass tip high. Hereabouts the bowling was demanding but not unplayable.

In the first dig only the new ball pair had caught the eye. Now Morkel was also a handful. Still, it was not Curtly Ambrose on a green top in Perth or on a skidding deck in Trinidad. Nor was it S.F. Barnes on a damp track in Johannesburg.

Thereafter the batting was horrible, at least until the last wicket pair reminded their supposed betters of the value of occupying the crease. Michael Clarke drove without moving his feet into position and fell leg before. Admirable as his first innings had been, it ended badly as he backed away and tried to clout a straight ball into the outer.

Michael Hussey had the entire tea break to think about his innings, but tried to drive his first ball and was held at gully. Brad Haddin was the worst offender. Some of his comrades had not put a high enough price on their wickets, but he threw his away by stepping down the pitch to a fast bowler and trying to smack a good length delivery over cover.

It was a rotten shot and a sign of the disintegration underway in the Australian room.

Not long afterwards the Australian total stood at 9/21. The scoreboard said a bit about the track, a lot about the bowlers and even more about the batting. As much was confirmed as the chase began whereupon the satisfying sound of leather and willow echoed around the ground.

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