Pat Cummins says “in a perfect world” leading Australia in Test cricket would not be the first taste of captaincy for the likes of he and Marnus Labuschagne.
Night T20s in South Africa are a tough ask for Australian fans: this one started at 3 am in Sydney and Melbourne and finished at 3 am in Perth.
But those who battled the time difference were rewarded with an absolute drubbing by the Aussies of a curiously insipid South African team – and they got the bonus of witnessing an Ashton Agar hat-trick.
The Wanderers was full (minus one stand left completely empty after being rendered unsafe by a morning storm) but the famously hostile Bullring crowd were in a gentle mood.
No discernible booing of David Warner or Steve Smith came through on the telecast; the only brief exception being when Smith clouted for four a ball that Dale Steyn dropped in his delivery stride – as the umpire signalled dead ball the crowd began to boo, but within seconds the noise had dissipated.
South Africa won the toss and bowled – badly. Steyn did pick up Warner for four off the second ball of the match with a brute of a ball that the Aussie opener skied to fine leg, but Australia soon moved into a commanding position.
Smith and Aaron Finch were gifted numerous short and wide balls, which they dispatched with alacrity.
Rarely has a pitch been so easy to read, yet to the increasing bewilderment of all, the South African bowlers got it wrong. Spin and off-speed deliveries were key and it was vital that full-speed balls be searingly accurate and kept to a minimum.
Yet throughout the innings the South African bowlers – Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi especially – banged it in short and wide, only to watch the white ball fly through the high altitude to the rope or over it.
After the six-over powerplay, Australia was 1/70. Finch and Smith had played numerous crisp shots to the fence and had some luck as well, including one skied cut shot by Smith that Steyn looked set to catch – before he lost sight of it in the lights and stood baffled as it cleared his head and bounced over the rope.
Andile Phehlukwayo’s medium pace, allied with the left-arm wrist spin of Tabraiz Shamsi and JJ Smuts’ left-arm orthodox gave the Proteas a modicum of control and the scoring rate slowly began to dip. Finch, frustrated, was caught on the long-on boundary for an impressive 42 off 27 and Smith was eventually stumped advancing to a wide ball from Shamsi for 45 off 32.
Matt Wade’s 18 off 11, Mitch Marsh’s 19 off 14 and Alex Carey’s 27 off 22 struggled somewhat for fluency against a diet of spin and slower balls on the two-paced surface, but, nevertheless, their contributions – on top of the powerful start – helped Australia to 6/178 with an over to spare.
Agar (20 not out off 9) slammed 18 from the final over, bowled by Rabada, to elevate the total to an impressive 6/196. Rabada and Ngidi ended up conceding 1/82 from their combined six overs; Steyn was much more impressive, taking 2/31 from his four and having mixed up his pace throughout.
Although 196 was not quite as high as might have been expected when Australia were 2/99 at the halfway point, it still looked formidable.
South Africa’s reply was diabolical. To bleary-eyed partisan Aussie fans, the only disappointment was that this was not the World Cup final.
The Australian bowling was energetic, smart and accurate – a complete contrast to what South Africa had dished up. Starc knocked Quinton de Kock’s middle stump out of the ground in the first over with a lethal ball that straightened down the line and comprehensively beat the South African captain’s airy swish of the bat – this ball encapsulating the chasm between the two sides’ effort and execution tonight.
The wickets of Rassie van der Dussen, JJ Smuts and David Miller soon followed and the match was all but over. The crowd were almost completely silent now – and the sounds of We Built This City, Country Roads and the like that were being pumped out after each ball came into my living room with marvellous clarity.
And then Agar took a hat-trick. Having seen his sumptuous debut Test innings of 98 (still the highest score ever made at 11) at Trent Bridge in 2013 I’ve always had a soft spot for him and it was a pleasure to see the joy on the faces of the Australians when Finch held a sharp chance at slip off Steyn to give the left-armer three wickets from three balls.
He no longer has the angelic locks of 2013 – he’s even balder than I am – but the 26-year-old from Perth may well play a starring role for Australia in the upcoming World Cup. He finished with 5/24 off his four overs, the equal best figures for a T20 International at the Wanderers and the best figures ever by an Australian in this format.
Adam Zampa and Pat Cummins each picked up a couple of wickets too and Starc and Kane Richardson also bowled well as South Africa were bowled out for just 89 – their lowest ever total in a T20 International. And, just to pile on the pain, the margin of defeat – 107 runs – makes this South Africa’s worst-ever loss in T20 cricket.
Where to from here for the Proteas? No doubt they will be much better next game, but even so it would take a brave person to bet against an Australian victory in this three-match series.
As for the Aussies, well it wasn’t quite a perfect performance but it was pretty close – and a world away from what occurred the last time they were at this ground.