Australia somehow lost the second T20 in South Africa overnight after needing just 35 from 28 balls with eight wickets in hand and David Warner on 59 not out.
The Aussie bowlers did a terrific job to set up the match for their batsmen, limiting the home side to just 158. That total looked to be well short of a winning score as Australia cruised to 1-98 with stars Warner and Steve Smith in control.
But Australia fell apart in the closing overs, unbelievably scoring just 22 from their final 28 balls despite Warner remaining unbeaten.
Between them, Australia’s new-look middle order of Mitch Marsh, Matt Wade and Ashton Agar scratched together just eight runs from 15 deliveries faced. So poorly did they bat that they could not even manage regular singles, denying Warner the strike as the required run rate sky rocketed. Yet even when Warner did get away from the non-striker’s end he too laboured badly at the death.
It was a terrible finish to the game for Australia, who were easily the better of the two teams for the first 90 per cent of the match. The joy of T20s, though, is that odd events occur more frequently than in ODIs or Tests. This unpredictability is the greatest strength of the format.
In hauling themselves off the canvas, SA have revived a series that looked headed for a dead rubber in Cape Town on Wednesday. Now Australia will enter that match under pressure after choking in Port Elizabeth.
What made last night’s ending so unexpected was that Australia had batted with impressive fluency and confidence for the first three-quarters of the chase. Opening pair Warner (67* from 56 balls) and Finch (14 from 12 balls) got after South Africa’s express pace new ball combination of Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje, carving 36 from the first four overs.
When Lungi Ngidi bled 12 runs from his first three balls Australia were running rampant. At 0-47 after 4.3 overs, the required run rate had plummeted to just 7.2 runs per over. SA captain Quinton de Kock was admonishing fielders and the home side looked rattled.
The very next ball Ngidi castled Finch and the Proteas had a moment to breathe. While they lacked penetration over the next 40 minutes, as Smith and Warner chipped away at the deficit, SA managed to at least reduce Australia’s momentum.
Left-arm wrist spinner Tabraiz Shamsi was crucial, giving up just 17 from his four overs. Even when Smith (29 from 26 balls) was caught at long on off a Dwaine Pretorius slower ball, Australia maintained control of the contest. Carey was looking in good nick on 14 from nine balls, and the equation was a simple one for Australia with just 35 needed from 28 balls with eight wickets in hand.
Then Carey was bowled by Ngidi as he looked to give himself room before Australia’s middle order was baffled by SA’s use of slower balls. Anyone who had watched the Proteas’ recent T20 series against England would know that their quicks rely very, very heavily on slower balls at the death. In this phase slower balls become their stock delivery and they send down only the occasional full-pace ball.
But somehow all of Marsh, Wade and Agar seemed to be expecting a regular supply of fast deliveries and were surprised by the slower offerings. All three of them were out playing ungainly swipes against slower balls they didn’t seem to pick. Surely the side’s data analysts had warned the Aussies they would be facing mostly slower balls in the dying overs. Yet in the final five overs all of the visiting batsmen, including Warner, consistently appeared to be surprised by off-pace deliveries.
This lack of nous stood out as starkly as their inability to find the boundary. This is not to deny credit to the Proteas’ bowlers, who did a solid job at the end. It is impossible, though, to ignore just how badly Australia handled what was a simple equation with less than five overs left.
Even the well-set Warner lost his composure in that final half an hour. His innings lost all momentum in this period and, with his batting partners floundering, Australia disintegrated. The series is of course still up for grabs and Australia would have gladly accepted a 2-1 series win a week ago. They may live to regret, though, not finishing the Proteas off when they had the chance.