Australia are nine wickets away from a first series victory over South Africa down under since 2006 after Alex Carey and Cameron Green dominated on a rain-affected day at the MCG.
Carey became the first Australian wicketkeeper since Brad Haddin nine years ago to score a Test century, hitting 13 fours in a commanding 111 compiled at a brisk pace; while Green defied a fractured finger that has already ruled him out of the third Test in Sydney to post a gritty 51 not out before Pat Cummins declared.
Finishing up at 8/575, a first-innings lead of 386, Cummins then removed Proteas captain Dean Elgar for a duck – strangled down the leg side for the second time this series – before rain brought a premature end to the day’s play.
With play to resume at 10am on Thursday to make up for lost time, two full days to bowl the Proteas out and with Mitchell Starc brushing off his own finger injury concern to take the new ball, things could hardly be rosier for Australia at the moment.
Carey, whose century adds another chapter to his remarkable rise into cricket’s elite, having dreamed of an AFL career growing up, paid tribute to former GWS coach Kevin Sheedy for the milestone.
Sheedy made the brutal decision to cut Carey, a best and fairest winner and Giants captain during their TAC Cup stint before their official entry into the AFL in 2012; which the gloveman credits for kick-starting his cricket career.
“I have to probably thank Kevin Sheedy that it was a Test 100 rather than a run-around with GWS,” Carey grinned after play.
“He pointed me in the cricket direction – so yeah, it was a really special day.
“I think it‘s one of those things you dream about, to be in a position to potentially do it and play for Australia. You work hard every day to perform as best you can.
“It’s been a bumpy journey along the way… footy not working out and cricket not working out after a few games.
“I never I guess gave up the hope of playing sport at the highest level and continue to try to chase that goal and dream.
“Proud so far, but hopefully a bit more to come in my career.”
Having dominated for the duration of the Test, the Aussie stranglehold only briefly slipped on the morning of Day 3, when the lionhearted Anrich Nortje disturbed the stumps of Travis Head (51) and then the returning David Warner (200) with successive deliveries.
After toiling throughout the second day’s play for just one wicket, it was a richly deserved pair of scalps for the Proteas express paceman, whose efforts throughout this Test have endeared him to the Australian public in the vein of England quick Mark Wood last summer.
When Cummins feathered Kagiso Rabada behind for 4 – the edge so slight that only the faintest murmur on Snicko when the Proteas reviewed spelled his doom – to leave the Aussies 6/400, the tourists had hopes renewed of restricting the deficit to below 250.
With the MCG pitch still largely benign, though, a whirlwind 25 from Nathan Lyon restored Australian dominance, clubbing three fours and a six before being caught off Lungi Ngidi attempting one big shot too many, before Carey and Green settled in to once again demoralise South Africa.
Clearly troubled by his finger fracture – at one point going 20 balls without a run – Green was far from his usual fluent best, but with Carey ticking the score over at the other end with a series of cuts, punches and reverse-sweeps, the all-rounder could afford to dig in and bide his time.
Having sailed to 98, a nervy drive on the up that he was fortunate to play and miss was Carey’s only sign of nerves; a drive through the covers with the next ball brought up a deserved maiden Test ton, the first by an Australian gloveman since Brad Haddin against England in Adelaide during the 2013/14 Ashes.
Raising his arms in triumph while completing the runs and quick to embrace Carey once the ball was dead, Green was as delighted as the South Australian himself at completing the milestone.
“We ebb and flow at times really well,” Carey said of his partnership with Green, with the pair having combined for 511 runs at 51. per partnership when at the wicket together in Tests.
“Today it was probably on me to score a bit, [and] more on him to grit through and he did that amazingly.
“I don’t really know how to explain it. I think just with certain guys, you just have that calmness and confidence.
“It’s been fun so far, and hopefully a few more big partnerships and no doubt he’ll get his ton.”
Chasing further quick runs, Carey’s breakthrough innings ended on 111, offering Marco Jansen a simple caught and bowled; doubtless his frustration at the soft wicket will delight coach Andrew McDonald.
Starc came in next for a quick swing, frustrating the MCG crowd – ‘We want Scott Boland’ signs a common sight in tribute to the Victorian cult hero – but the sight of the quick copping a nasty blow to the helmet from a Jansen short ball, as well as the fast-fading light, prompted Cummins to at last call his troops in.
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With 20 minutes to steel himself during the tea break, Elgar would doubtless have hoped for the sort of gritty, backs-to-the-wall innings he has made his name on during his 81-Test career.
Instead, he’d last just three balls before falling in depressingly familiar fashion: a short lifter from Cummins from over the wicket parried at by the left-hander, a tickle off the glove down leg side gleefully pouched millimetres from the turf by Carey.
With 31 runs in four innings this series, including two leg-side strangles and a run out, Elgar’s tour down under has been a nightmare from which there has been no awakening, perfectly encapsulating the Proteas’ torrid time with the bat.
Digging in against Starc, whose bloodied finger didn’t stop him finding menacing swing, and three consecutive maidens from Cummins, Sarel Erwee and Theunis de Bruyn dug in to prevent any further losses before a burst of rain brought an end to proceedings an hour and a half before the scheduled close of play, with the Proteas 1/15.
Things could have been even worse had Warner not dropped a tough chance off Cummins to spare de Bruyn.
Nevertheless, leading by 371 runs still, and with the pitch beginning to show signs of wear, Australia will be confident of rolling the embattled Proteas again on Day 4.