JOHANNESBURG – A strange hum hung over this storied venue for much of the first session of the final Test between South Africa and Australia on Friday, with a healthy crowd not sure what to make of proceedings that unfolded more sedately than has been the case for most of the series.
The Australian players certainly appeared more muted than is usual for them, perhaps still exhausted – mentally, physically and emotionally – after a tumultuous week for them all personally and for the sport in that country.
The Proteas batsmen were measured in their approach, with Aiden Markram’s unbeaten 53 dotted with a number of sweetly-struck boundaries.
He was the dominant player of the morning, leading the hosts to 88/1 at lunch. He will resume the afternoon session with Hashim Amla, who has scored 13 so far.
The dominating theme, however, was the mood of the Australians.
The loss of two key figures in Steve Smith and David Warner – never mind just their batting, but also the authority they carried in that dressing-room – along with the announcement that this match would be Darren Lehmann’s last as head coach would have caused relative trauma in the squad.
They cancelled Wednesday’s training session, and Thursday’s one took place in a surreal atmosphere here with the team requesting the stadium’s management to put on an Australian playlist featuring some of the country’s most well-known tunes, some of which contained some downright depressing lyrics.
By the time new captain Tim Paine stepped up for the toss, they’d also been forced to make a fourth change to the starting team with Mitchell Starc – understood to have taken events of the last week particularly hard – sidelined with a stress fracture in his right leg, meaning 30-year-old Chadd Sayers made his debut.
The other three changes saw Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns called up to replace Warner and Cameron Bancroft at the top of the order, while Peter Handscomb replaces Smith.
As for their usual aggression, either through body language or verbally, both of those were absent.
Josh Hazlewood bowled a couple of neat deliveries that beat the outside edge, as did Sayers, but both lacked the usual intensity expected of a new-ball pair on the first morning of a Test match where the series is still on the line.
Pat Cummins brought some vigour when called on to bowl, but the sole wicket of the morning’s play went to off-spinner Nathan Lyon – who earlier had expressed some concern about the state of the ball to both umpires and his captain.
Once again he dismissed Dean Elgar, who got a leading edge as he tried to play the ball through the leg-side and instead miscued, lifting it to mid-off where Sayers timed his jump well to hang on to a neat catch.
Elgar made 19, hitting two fours in a 79-minute stay at the crease.