A fightback from Mitch Marsh and Tim Paine late on day one helped Australia share honours with South Africa in the first Test in Durban yesterday.
After David Warner (51), Steve Smith (56) and Shaun Marsh (40) all failed to convert their good starts, Australia were teetering at 5-177 before Mitch Marsh (32no) and Paine (21no) shepherded them to stumps, which was called early due to bad light.
At 5-225 Australia are about 100-120 runs shy of what would be a solid total on a slow, dry deck which is already amenable to spin and a tad two-paced for the quicks.
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The younger Marsh gave cause to believe his extraordinary Ashes series was no fluke. That commanding performance against England was built around Marsh’s willingness to tone down his aggression and bat according to the match situation.
Yesterday the scenario he encountered demanded circumspection and that was just what Marsh produced as he left or dead batted the good deliveries and pounced on the rest.
While Marsh seems to have finally identified a batting method which works for him in Tests, his WA teammate Cameron Bancroft looks a muddled mess.
Bancroft’s dismissal in the sixth over of the day was utterly bizarre. He was on five when he decided to walk down the wicket at Vernon Philander, getting himself outside the line off stump, only to push aimlessly at a delivery that would have passed at least 50cm wide of the stumps.
As wicketkeeper Quentin de Kock pouched the edge, Bancroft must surely have thought: “What the hell did I just do?”. That was only the second delivery Bancroft had faced from Philander, which suggests it was a premeditated strategy to try to combat the Proteas gun.
It gave the impression of a batsman who had little faith his technique could withstand the probing of the world’s most accurate Test quick.
Bancroft already was under fierce pressure after his underwhelming Ashes series, during which he averaged just 25 against a limp England attack on batting-friendly decks.
His opening partner Warner looked in supreme touch yesterday. The left hander’s footwork and balance were impeccable, as was his patience.
Warner waited for the South African bowlers to overpitch or offer width and then cashed in, moving to 50 with a beautifully placed cut shot from a rare loose delivery by Philander.
Unlike Bancroft, who gifted his wicket, Warner and Usman Khawaja both were undone by testing deliveries.
Philander got the ball to leap unexpectedly off the sleepy deck and catch the edge high on Warner’s blade. Khawaja, who had moved confidently to 14 with a couple of sumptuous boundaries, got a jaffa from Kagiso Rabada.
That delivery pitched on middle stump and seamed appreciably across the left hander, earning an edge to de Kock.
Warner’s wicket had come from the last ball before lunch and left Australia vulnerable at 3-95. Steve Smith (56 from 114 balls) and Shaun Marsh (40 from 96 balls) bided their time nicely but neither was able to kick on and anchor the Australian innings.
Smith, surprisingly, was out caught behind trying to cut a Maharaj delivery which was too tight to his stumps. In doing so the Aussie skipper repeated a mistake he seemed to have eradicated from his game after the 2016 Test tour of Sri Lanka, where he was troubled at times by left arm spinner Rangana Herath.
Marsh, meanwhile, erred in playing for the spin, just as the Australian batsmen did with monotonous regularity during that disastrous series in Sri Lanka.
The West Australian had looked greatly assured against Maharaj before that error saw him edge to first slip.
Maharaj benefited from a dry pitch which offered generous turn for a day one surface. His first delivery of the Test turned sharply, beating the inside edge of Warner and prompting an unsuccessful LBW review by the Proteas.
That one delivery would have planted a smile on the face of in-form Australian tweaker Nathan Lyon, who will get to bowl last on this parched pitch.
Maharaj was steady, without ever appearing overly threatening. Philander was easily the best of the SA quicks, with Rabada fading as the day went on, and Morne Morkel well below his best.
The Proteas will know they can bowl much better than they did yesterday, and they’ll have access to the second new ball after just four overs today.
Marsh and Paine still have a lot of work to do.