PORT ELIZABETH - It is a real shame this series between two sworn enemies is being played in virtual empty stadia for Friday at St George’s Park was another riveting spectacle.
The breathtaking nature of this contest is showing no indications of abating as South Africa and Australia continue to try to pummel each other into submission. Fortunately for everyone involved it was purely on-field, although South Africa’s bowling hero Kagiso Rabada may face an ICC hearing after rubbing shoulders with Steve Smith after the Australian captain was dismissed.
But for sheer unadulterated drama it is the top show in town. With Australia looking to shrug off a tough week of off-field scrutiny for both teams by calmly moving to 98/0 by the stroke of lunch time, it required a herculean effort by the South Africans bowlers to ultimately dismiss the visitors for 243.
The ultra-disciplined Vernon Philander set the revolving door in motion by removing Cameron Bancroft and Usman Khawaja either side of the morning interval before the recalled Lungi Ngidi claimed the prized wicket of David Warner.
Australia’s pantomime villain was entirely focused on the job at hand, seemingly unfazed by all the drama he was associated with over the past week, and intent to remind everyone of the wonderful talent he is when not looking to attack members of the opposition in a Kingsmead stairwell.
However, Ngidi, who was playing at the expense of Morne Morkel, found a beautiful in-swinger that ripped through Warner’s defence and clipped the top of the middle stump.
With Warner back in the sheds, the door was open for Rabada to take centre stage. In a spell of searing pace just before the tea interval, South Africa’s spearhead answered his captain Faf du Plessis’s call for the senior players within the Proteas set-up to the lead the revival.
Such is Rabada’s quality that he needed no less than just 18 balls to decimate Australia’s middle-order, with five wickets – including Steve Smith’s - falling during this frenzied period. Altogether the visitors had lost eight wickets for 84 runs.
South Africa had been hauled off the canvas and finally landed their first significant punch of the series.
“KG came back after lunch and had rhythm on his side. He bowled pretty well. All credit to KG for the way he bowled, knocking over five is pretty special. Credit to way he ran in,” Rabada’s new-ball partner Vernon Philander said.
“I thought we had bowled pretty well in the first half of the first session and then we let it slip before lunch. We had a chat at lunch time about how we wanted to go about things. The way we came back was pretty special. I think we would have taken 243 in the morning.”
On a pitch that Australia’s Nathan Lyon referred to as one “that you never feel that you quite in on”, there is still lots of hard work ahead for South Africa though.
The home team’s batting unit were bundled for 162 just last week, and despite showing some sort of fight in the second innings through a century from young opening batsman Aiden Markram, there remain questions marks hovering over a few senior batsmen.
Markram has already been lost in the response with Pat Cummins trapping him plumb lbw for 11 shortly before the close leaving Dean Elgar and night-watchman Rabada to see out the remaining overs of the day.
“I am not sure the conditions are going to get easier. The remainder of the game is going to be quite challenging. We still have the best bowling attack in the world, we feeling confident enough that if we bowl well in partnerships, bowl well together, and challenge the South African defences, we can hopefully create 10 chances and take those 10 chances,” Lyon warned.