Aussies have Proteas in vice-like grip

2008-12-18 00:00

After vacillating for two days, the Perth Test yesterday 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 till 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 AB De 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 till 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 remains 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.

As they walked out to bat Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and Jacques 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 South Africans. And so it proved as the hosts kept a fuller length, set tighter fields and found a spinner capable of delivering an occasional doozie.

Throughout, wickets had fallen in pairs and the trend continued as Amla was lured to his doom by Krezja, shortly before 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 and mental pain. Kallis and AB de Villiers tried to repair the damage. 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.

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