Mitchell Marsh’s dismissal in the first over of the day made Australia’s chances even slimmer. (Reuters: Mike Hutchings)
In the end, it was over quickly.
Overnight, we’d had that stasis that Test cricket can offer, the hours of undecided potential between the third and fourth days in the Port Elizabeth Test.
Australia’s lead in the second innings was a slender 41, five wickets left.
But Nathan Lyon had been typically bullish speaking to Grandstand after the third day.
“There’s a big chance for Mitch Marsh and Tim Paine to really stand up and build a lead, with the bowlers to come with the bat. Then it’s up to us bowlers to get the job done.”
Even 5 for 180 was a basis for hope. Marsh had been immaculate in defence the night before, as he has since his recall to the team last December in Perth.
Hope lasted as long as one over, time enough for Marsh to crash a boundary through the covers.
Then Kagiso Rabada ended it.
‘It crashed through the gate like a hungry dog’
Reverse swing again, back into the right-hander.
Ball taking pad on its way to off stump, but not reliant on luck — it crashed through the gate like a hungry dog whistled home for dinner.
Before long, Australia was out for 239, and South Africa knocked off 101 at four wickets down.
Where Marsh has found his way in Test cricket after four years of trying, Rabada’s star hasn’t needed any time to rise.
It has blazed bright from its first sighting.
In his second over after dismissing Marsh, he had Pat Cummins edging to gully, then one more over before Mitchell Starc nicked behind.
That made six wickets for the innings, 11 for 150 in the match.
Rabada stamps name on series
Including Usman Khawaja’s dismissal late the evening before, Rabada had taken four wickets in 22 balls, after his four in seven balls in the first innings.
He had 10 for the match for the fourth time in his career.
That career is 28 Tests old.
For perspective, Makhaya Ntini played 101 Tests for his four ten-wicket matches.
Dale Steyn has the most South African ten-fors, with five of them in 86 games.
Levelled 1-1, Rabada had stamped his name on a series even as he made his exit from it.
Unless some brilliant lawyering has swayed match referee Jeff Crowe, Rabada will be suspended for two Tests for his response to dismissing Steve Smith in the first innings, after accumulating too many demerit points.
Then even as he bowled in his second innings, the news came through that he’d been reported for another send-off of David Warner on the third day.
Whether or not Rabada is unfairly in the spotlight, it was a bad look to react that way before his first hearing had even been held.
Given four South African wickets fell on the way to a routine target, Australian captain Steve Smith was left wondering what might have been.
“We probably left ourselves 50 to 75 short in the first innings, 50 in the second,” he told ABC Grandstand, “and if we had that extra 120, things might be a bit of a different story.
“Rabada bowled brilliantly again this morning, as he has the whole Test match.”
Lyon bowled with seven on the leg side
Marsh’s unhappy morning continued when he dropped a straightforward slip catch off Aiden Markram on 7.
Josh Hazlewood got that wicket back, Smith leaning across from second slip rather than trusting Marsh again.
The opening batsman had only moved to 21, but with so few runs to play with they all counted.
Dean Elgar had been removed in the meantime, again caught and bowled by Nathan Lyon.
In Durban, the spinner had come on early and taken two balls to dismiss Elgar. In Port Elizabeth, he came on early and needed one.
Lyon bowled with seven on the leg side, turning and bouncing from the rough, with four catchers.
Hashim Amla struggled but survived, walking across his stumps and kicking balls away.
Lyon couldn’t win — if he hit the pad outside the line, the umpires ruled that hiding the bat behind pad counted as playing a shot, or that the ball might not turn enough.
But when he reviewed one hitting in line, it was turning down leg.
Never mind — the story again was AB de Villiers.
de Villiers ‘playing on a different planet’
Once more, he was playing on a different planet, a different atmosphere, a different gravitational pull.
There was his pull shot, not even from a short ball, just flipping a length Hazlewood ball into the empty acres over square.
To Lyon, he offered a flick and nothing more, except it carried onto the balcony of the hospitality stand at deep midwicket.
This after the upright middle finger that is the reverse-sweep for four.
Then back to Hazlewood, a rifled cut shot and a dead-straight drive to the fence.
In no time he had 28, and the finish line was in sight at 81 for 2.
Amla relaxed enough to thrash at a wide Cummins delivery and provide Paine a good low catch, then de Villiers followed without adding, down the wicket to Lyon and edging to short leg.
But with only 20 to get, the runs were knocked off without further incident.
“I’m pleased with the guys’ efforts to take four wickets and leave a few scars,” was Smith’s consolation, “and get AB out conventionally for the first time this series.”
It was an interesting point: in his four innings, de Villiers had previously been not out twice and run out once.
One of those not outs was in vain, at Durban, but Port Elizabeth was the opposite.
Thus it ended, Australia on the wrong side of a classic from one batsman and another from one bowler, with enough supporting roles to fill out the gaps.
The ledger now sits at 1-1 with a decent break ahead, something Smith thinks will be key when it came to gearing up for Cape Town.
“Now we’ve got a break. A couple of days of no cricket, no nothing, just relax and try to freshen up. Then get ourselves up for another Test match.”
If the first two episodes are a guide, it should be chapter three of a vintage series.