DURBAN – Australians are familiar with bush-fires, and they know how quickly they can get out of hand. On Friday, at Kingsmead, the visitors from Down Under scorched through the South African line-up with the intensity of an Outback furnace, to almost seal the fate of the opening Test.
162 all out the Proteas wilted to, and they will take some urgent blooming to stagger back to their feet in this contest. They were outhustled, out-patienced, and then outgunned by a brutal Australian attack, which lived up to all their hype and then some.
It is often in the most unforgiving light that the harshest truths are exposed. On Friday, Australia’s potent attack of three flame-throwers and a hand grenade twirler delivered some unpalatable food for thought for South Africa, and already the first Test is dead in the water for the hosts.
Mitchell Starc rightly stole the headlines with five for 34, in a spell of unrelenting pace, unflinching hostility and unerring accuracy. The South Africans had spent the week practising with the young left-armers they could find, looking to get familiar with the angles that Starc comes at one with.
And yet, try as they did, the local lefties were a gallop short, and a bag of tricks short of the sorcery that Starc conjured up on a beautiful Durban afternoon. The ominous factor for South Africa, who went to sleep 189 runs in arrears – and already making bowling plans again – was that it could have been any other bowler, too.
Josh Hazlewood, mean and as miserly as a young Glenn McGrath, beat the bat and bruised the body, but he only had one scalp to show for his efforts. On another day, he might have snatched more. Pat Cummins, too, got just the one, but their day of ample prey in the African savannah will surely come.
It was spinner Nathan Lyon who started the carnage, as he twirled out Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla in his first over. Both batsmen may look back and ponder whether the shots they fell with could have had more conviction. All they did was stoke an already building Australian bushfire of expectation.
That furnace, fanned by the Lyon opening gambit, was stoked further by Cummins on the stroke of tea, as he convinced Aiden Markram to give away his good start. Already, South Africa’s top-order is taking lessons from Australia’s lower order on putting a premium on their wickets.
Australia’s last five wickets realised 174, precious runs, while South Africa’s top half wasted away for just 108. Mitchell Marsh, normally a brute of a striker, deserved a Test ton on the basis of his restraint alone. Far from playing on instinct as he normally does, he played the bigger picture, acknowledging that he had to tighten up, and show South Africa that the visitors had more gears than just first or furious.
He ground out 96, and that stoic stance alone allowed Starc to bash a breezy 35, which lifted Australia well beyond a total that South Africa felt was manageable. It was 351, to be exact, and that enormity of that was apparent by tea, with South Africa three down for just 55.
Keshav Maharaj’s five for 123 was now a candle in the wind, blown out by Australia’s search for the jugular. Beyond tea, Starc came into his own, ridding the South African ship of their leader with a ball that came from round the wicket, straightened, and tickled the willow. Faf du Plessis did well to nick it, considering it all happened at 145km/h.
Starc wasn’t quite done, as he bullied Theunis de Bruyn and Vernon Philander back to the sheds, before ending matters by rushing through the defences of Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel.
AB de Villiers stood helpless on the other end, his encouraging 71 not out now just a sorry pale of water engulfed in the sheer intensity of Australian fury. That is the thing with bush-fires. They do not muck about. They scorch what’s in front of them, and ask few questions.
Australia were red-hot on Friday, and their opponents may well have left the ground wondering just what to do to stop such an unnatural disaster from happening again.