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Australia take valuable lesson from Port Elizabeth despite varying fortunes

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Australia take valuable lesson from Port Elizabeth despite varying fortunes

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Anirudh Suresh

02/23/2020

‘In a twenty-20 game, every ball is an event,’ Mark Nicholas said on air following a pacy Mitchell Starc yorker that thudded into the pads of Quinton de Kock, who went for an unsuccessful on-side hoick. And today at St George's Park, for a long while, every ball was an event indeed.

From the evidence of how the first thirty minutes of the match went, there is no way one could have known that South Africa were coming on the back of a 107-run drubbing in the first game. The stands were packed, the folks in the stadium were vocal from the very first ball and the South African openers - or rather just Quinton de Kock - were making hay while the sun shone. And mind you, every bit of the first few overs was eventful. You either had de Kock casually depositing the Aussie pacers over the stands like it was bread and butter for him or you had Starc steaming in ferociously trying to knock the stumps off.

Hell, as if a good contest between bat and ball wasn’t enough, Steve Smith decided to unleash his superman self to acrobatically stop what was a certain six, an effort that invited applause and jaw-dropping expressions from the ever-so-hostile Port Elizabeth crowd. In no time, South Africa - mostly thanks to the willow of de Kock - raced off to 59/0 off just 6 overs and by now, it looked like the ghosts of Johannesburg were well and truly erased. 

Up until this point, though, barring the sixth over from Adam Zampa which was hideous to say the least, the Australian bowlers had adopted a predominantly one-dimensional approach - to bowl fast. Both Starc and Cummins - who’d bowled 2 overs each in the powerplay - tried to barrage the Proteas batsmen with pace - trying to either bounce them out or clean them up - and Kane Richardson, too, bowled a benign first over, not asking any questions of the Proteas batsmen whatsoever.

On a dusty St George's Park wicket that looked slow from the outset, it looked like a questionable approach from the Aussie bowlers. Whether they meant it, whether they were trying to intimidate the batsmen with pace or were actually looking for help off the wicket, we’ll never know, but the initial approach was a pretty naive one. Rightly so, it was treated with disdain by the South African batsmen.

But right on the stroke of the conclusion of the powerplay, Australia had their aha moment. For, right from the 37th ball of the South African innings, there were no experiments nor were there any ambitious deliveries; they stuck to one approach and one approach only - vary the pace and utilize the slowness of the wicket.

The plan was evident from the very first ball post the powerplay, where Richardson bowled an off-cutter outside off-stump to de Kock, and soon, it paid rich dividends as just three balls into the seventh over, they accounted for their first scalp in the form of Reeza Hendricks. A deceptive off-cutter that was back of a length was responsible for the wicket of an already-struggling Hendricks, but little did South Africa know at that point that they were going to be relentlessly bombarded with the same for the remaining 81 deliveries.

In the six overs that followed Hendricks’ dismissal, South Africa only managed 38 runs and, in the process, also lost Faf du Plessis who, from the very first ball, looked like he was in for an early exit. Unsurprisingly, the dismissal of du Plessis, too, was the result of a slower ball from Cummins, who’d gotten the memo from Richardson on what to do on the surface. By the end of the 13th over, Australia had successfully killed off the momentum of de Kock - and subsequently South Africa - all through one simple plan - varying the pace. 

The key term to be noted here, I suppose, is ‘varying’ the pace. And by varying, I do not just refer to bowling slower balls nor am I just referring to the pacers. The most important role of all was arguably played by the left-arm spin of Ashton Agar, who looked like a man on a mission out there to prove that he was no one match wonder.   

Agar, from his very first ball, suffocated the batsmen at the crease and did so in two ways - by cramping the batsmen for room and by bowling consistently quicker. His average speed today was an incredible 96.7 kph and by bowling fast, he also unsettled de Kock, who was not quite able to get under the ball and unleash his favorite slog-sweep.

It resulted in the South African skipper attempting multiple botched reverse-sweeps and eventually in his undoing, as he perished off Zampa’s bowling trying to throw the kitchen sink at one. Eventually, Agar ended with figures of 0/28. He did not quite reap the rewards today, but there can be a very good case made for his spell today being every bit as good as his one the other night where he claimed a five-fer. 

The spell also showcased a side of the Western Australian that we have not seen in international cricket until today - that of being a leader. It was he who led from the front today and paved the way for the other bowlers to find their feet in the match. His spell was also increasing evidence of the budding partnership between Agar and Zampa.

Agar, post the victory in Johannesburg, revealed how he loves bowling with ‘Zamps’ and how they have a mutual understanding between themselves. Zampa, uncharacteristically enough, did not start off well today, conceding 13 off his first over, but found his rhythm once he started bowling in tandem with his partner Agar, who showed him the right lines, lengths and speeds to bowl on a slow wicket. 

Eventually, the change of plan worked like a charm and they ended up restricting South Africa to just 158, conceding just 99 off the last 14 overs. As it turned out, though, it wasn’t enough, as they slumped to defeat. Perhaps, it was the reckless first 6 overs that cost them. But you wonder if this is a performance that Australia would look back on in the months to follow.

For, it taught them a more valuable lesson - that they don’t always have to rely on pace, that they are not one-trick ponies and that they, now, finally have a spin-bowling duo they can whole-heartedly rely on. That can wait, though. For now, they would have to figure out a way to replicate their bowling performance from today and drastically improve their batting, when Newlands beckons on Wednesday. 

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