So the band played on. The second day of the Port Elizabeth Test was as good as the first, South Africa battling disciplined Australian bowling to take the edge.
Australia made 243 on the first day, South Africa ended the second on 263, with three wickets in hand. It helps when one of the three is AB de Villiers playing as well as he ever has in his storied career.
The other contest came from the band that literally played on, a clash of wills between the St George Brass Band and umpire Kumar Dharmasena.
Massed in the shade at the back of the eastern stand, the band wheezed and pomped away on various instruments with more enthusiasm than timing. It was only by the afternoon that their efforts got on Dharmasena’s nerves.
Through the morning, the band played on. As did South Africa. Nightwatchman Kagiso Rabada held the Australians up for 39 minutes in the first session, blocking and clouting his way to 29 before their annoyance was assuaged.
Gather runs and wickets while he may — the tempestuous fast bowler faces a hearing to see whether his disciplinary record will see him suspended for bumping Steve Smith in the first innings.
But his removal united Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar for a long stay. Neither had offered much in Durban, and had a point to prove.
Australia’s bowlers were consistent, gave little away, but couldn’t break through.
Elgar has never been a stroke-player in Tests, and Amla bunkered down with the concentration of a batsman responding to talk of fading powers.
The pair batted till lunch, then beyond. There were plays and misses, subtle reverse swing. There was hostile pace from Patrick Cummins. And still the band played on.
The entire second session passed by. Amla had a second leg-before dismissal overturned, having earlier been struck outside the line. The next was a poor call from a ball that came almost off the face of the bat, never mind the edge.
Perhaps the mistake got Dharmasena on edge, after the umpire had been very good on day one. He decided the band couldn’t play on, gesturing to them to stop, then holding up the match until they complied.
The instrumentalists packed up and left the stand in a huff. Other spectators chanted and drummed and generally displayed their enthusiasm for noise.
And still the band played on — the two-man band at centre wicket, both batsmen going to half-centuries by tea. The break came and went. Into the third session, the musical band returned.
Officials went to negotiate with them. The match referee spoke to the umpires. Eventually, after another pause, the cricketers played on too. The band tootled dogmatically through deliveries, making a point.
If there was a point to be made, it was that umpires in front of 60,000 fans in India have a lot more noise to deal with than a few thousand South Africans and a couple of dozen instruments.
But one could equally be bemused by why cricket fans would choose to taunt a Test match umpire if for whatever reason, conditions on a certain day were breaking his concentration.
Finally, the breakthroughs, Amla losing off stump as Starc reversed the ball away from his defensive shot, Elgar nicking Hazlewood’s swing behind. Both went within eight balls with the score on 155.
Which told a story. Despite lasting 46.2 overs, the partnership had only added 88. There had been good bowling, but also a lack of intent when dished up some more ordinary fare.
Elgar especially had put away the cut shot for so long that by the time he dusted it off, it was rusty and barely functional. Wide half-trackers were chopped into the ground for nought.
The stand had made the bowlers work, but hadn’t batted Australia out of the game. The deficit was also 88.
Now the Aussies were calling the tune, with new names to the fore.
Mitchell Marsh foremost, doing his job as relief seamer to trap Faf du Plessis and Theunis de Bruyn for single figures each, leg before to inswing.
Then Nathan Lyon, who hadn’t featured heavily, did in yet another left-hander, a perfect delivery that straightened, beat Quinton de Kock’s edge, and bowled him for 9.
Fortunately for South Africa, the man at the other end since Amla’s wicket had been de Villiers. Just as in Durban, he activated God Mode while mere mortals struggled.
Even as five batsmen were dismissed for a cumulative 19 runs, South Africa added 72. With someone needing to take control, de Villiers grabbed the game by the scruff.
Hashim Amla leaves the field as the Australians celebrate taking his wicket. (AP: Michael Sheehan)
He swept and reverse-swept Lyon, pulled the fast men, ran crisply between wickets. He was close to 50 in no time, reaching it with two full tosses from Starc.
The first, wide of off stump, he was able to stretch for and carve to third man with a wristy flourish. The next was straight and vanished through midwicket.
Left high and dry in the first Test on 71 not out, falling wickets suggested it might happen again. But this time, de Villiers was conducting an orchestra of his own.
He whittled away the lead. To 11 when he targeted Lyon on the sweep. To two after he flicked a Cummins yorker off his pads, then arched his back to uppercut over gully.
It’s hard to describe the charisma, the seductive power, of de Villiers’ batting. But while he was on song, late in the afternoon in the golden hour of sunlight, everyone in the ground was locked on.
Equally, that late hour brings a feeling of danger from Starc. That sense that every ball is an event. But this time Vernon Philander was able to see him out, surviving nine-and-a-half overs to stumps.
By that time, the lead was 20. Asked what sort of deficit Australia would be comfortable with once South Africa is done, Marsh flashed a grin: “Twenty.”
As for de Villiers: “It’s not always fun to watch him. But I’m sure it’s fun to watch him from the sidelines.”
Even the opposition can’t deny it. The star headliner will resume on day three. The band plays on.