CAPE TOWN – Come what may, cricket simply refuses to take centre stage in this most enthralling of series.
Even on a sun-drenched autumn day, with Table Mountain splendidly looking over, etched in brilliant relief against a cloudless sky, the talk will still not be about a tenacious Dean Elgar century or a supernatural spell from Pat Cummins.
The latter was simply brilliant yesterday afternoon of day one of the third Test, charging in barrel-chested from the Wynberg End unchanged for eight bustling overs. The special effort yielded four wickets for just 12 runs, decimating the South African middle-order in the process, and giving Australia the advantage on an opening day that had seemed to belong to the hosts at the tea interval.
The only blot on this beautiful Cummins storyline is that television replays have showed the Australian fast bowler stepping on the ball with his boot close to the conclusion of the second session.
Cummins vehemently denied any skulduggery at the after-day press conference, but it remains the latest instalment in a series that has been marred by players issued with demerit points for “bringing the game into disrepute”.
“What do you want me to say? It’s a mistake,” Cummins retorted. “I looked straight back at him (the umpire) and he just started to giggle because it was obviously very unintentional. Obviously there were no issues, so he passed it on.”
It was, though, a tribute to Elgar’s lion-hearted spirit that he continued to blunt Cummins’ reverse-swing, and the rest of the Australian attack for that matter, through sheer bloody-mindedness. Although yesterday was arguably one of the more fluent innings the gritty left-hander will play, highlighted by an over of three sweetly-timed cover drives off Mitchell Marsh shortly before the lunch interval, it was once again a tale of defiance rather than elegance.
Not that it mattered much to Elgar for the value of his unbroken 253-ball innings to the team’s cause had increased substantially by the time the shadows had covered Newlands.
“I think the wicket is by no means flat. It might have looked like that when AB (de Villiers) was batting. I think they identified certain areas where they exploit most batsmen. The old ball was reversing, which makes batting a lot more trickier. It was tough out there, especially when you have a new batter in. But the minute you had a few wickets fall, it is going to be tough,” Elgar said.
“I think that is why ultimately there was a lot of emotion in the celebration. Going back to (the) previous series, against India it was a bit of an up-and-down series for me, and I didn’t think I had accomplished as a player for the side what I wanted to. It was important for me to do it in the first two Tests against Oz, and slowly but surely I was finding myself in preparation and be the player that I am.”
For all of Elgar’s stubbornness and brief brilliance of De Villiers, who contributed yet another rapid half-century to the series, the concerns are growing louder about SA’s fragile middle-order.
A collapse that saw six wickets fall for 48 runs that changed the match-situation from 220/2 to 266/8 included yet another failure from captain Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock and the incoming Temba Bavuma.
On a pitch where a minimum first innings total of 400 seems to be par, Elgar’s work may be far from over.
“The way it was going at tea I thought we were looking at 380-400. You just can’t afford to play loose cricket. Cummins was a big threat throughout the day, especially when it reverses, and he kept us on our toes all day. He got a few wickets at the end there and ultimately brought Australia back into this game,” Elgar said.