The day Australia's batsmen stopped getting away with it

The top-order has resembled a house of cards for some time. In Port Elizabeth it finally collapsed

South Africa celebrate
South Africa celebrate the wicket of Brad Haddin, the man who so often revived Australia's batting in recent Tests. Photograph: Rogan Ward/Reuters Photograph: ROGAN WARD/REUTERS
South Africa celebrate the wicket of Brad Haddin, the man who so often revived Australia's batting in recent Tests. Photograph: Rogan Ward/Reuters Photograph: ROGAN WARD/REUTERS

Last modified on Wed 21 Feb 2018 13.17 EST

The twin obsessions in our house of late have been the Australia-South Africa Test series, and the American reboot of House of Cards. In the latter, politician Francis Underwood painstakingly undermines rivals and enemies in his own administration, creating a precarious structure that appears sound, but could at any moment be induced to collapse. Australia’s Test top order, conversely, has looked like a house of cards for months, yet somehow stood firm through five Ashes victories and a resounding first-up win against South Africa. Surely, we have been saying since November, this can’t go on. In the second Test of this tour, it finally came down.

Across six crushing victories against well-regarded opponents, Australia’s top order have nearly all failed in nearly every first innings. Every time, one or two players – quite often further down the order – have averted the risk of a severe early disadvantage. Then with Mitchell Johnson leading their bowling line, Australia have forced their opponents into the kind of collapse they themselves just dodged.

Beginning the Ashes in Brisbane, Australia’s top six made 107 between them, three of them with single figures. Brad Haddin partnered with No8 Johnson to push to 295. Adelaide was Australia’s best effort, but 4-174 could have ended up well below par for a fine batting pitch. Only Haddin and Michael Clarke really fired, carrying the score to 570. It was a similar story for the rest of the Ashes (with Haddin often the saviour) and into the first Test in South Africa.

Through all of this, even ardent Australian fans had to note the sweet tang of good fortune. In many ways it’s a more delicious flavour than the most merited triumph; certainly more exhilarating. There is the thrill of the illicit, the sense of getting away with something one shouldn’t. There is the kick of sheer arseiness, the way kids on YouTube celebrate when they make that trick shot they’ve been practising for weeks. Getting away with it is precisely what Australia have been doing, until Dale Steyn finally arrived to play schoolmaster.

The first innings at Port Elizabeth started with a familiar pattern. Five of the usual top seven scored a combined 41 runs. Smith, though, batted beautifully on a pitch that no one else had been able to gauge. It looked for all the world like another escape, until suddenly something changed. In every previous episode, Australia’s rescuers had a decent wedge of luck. Reprieves were offered by bowlers, fieldsmen or umpires. This time, with Smith on 49, a caught-behind appeal was reviewed, and a squiggle that didn’t have the sound signature of a nick appeared on the snickometer. The third umpire gave it out anyway. The rescue was aborted, Australia falling 177 behind.

The second innings, accordingly, was no matter of trying to scrap up to a competitive score. It became an equation of batting five sessions to save a Test, or accidentally win it. Australia’s stroke-making line-up is most suspect in long-form batting. The openers aside, they failed comprehensively.

Curiously, those two were once seen as most suspect – the old bloke with no Test experience and the hothead spawned from T20 – but have become this team’s most solid citizens. In nine Tests since each man vindicated his spot in Durham, Warner has scored 49 or better nine times, Chris Rogers eight times, striking seven centuries between them. Here each was brilliant in his contrasting fashion, Warner putting the bowlers on the defensive with a calculated blast of nine boundaries in his 66, Rogers nearly carrying his bat in a defiant 107.

Below them, though, the scorecard read 5, 0, 1, 0, 1, 6, 6, 3 not out, 0. Those nine batsmen were almost outscored by extras. It was a massacre. A shambles. An embarrassment. It was exactly what we’ve been expecting to happen for months.

It drew plenty of comparisons to Durham, in which Warner and Rogers also top-scored before a massive collapse. This was different though: in England there was an attainable target; here it was about survival. But against a team reduced by injury to three bowlers, Australia had a great chance to push their opponents hard. Instead they let part-time spinners bowl 21.4 overs for 57 runs, giving up two wickets in the process, and even with Morne Morkel on the verge of breaking, Steyn was able to overpower Australia’s middle order and drag the game back.

In a similarity that does count, Steyn’s was the first time since Durham that Australia faced a truly confronting spell of bowling. In the face of it, their shortcomings were laid bare. In 11 innings since his Adelaide century, Clarke’s best score is 24. Haddin has been found out, twice losing his middle stump. The improving Smith remains a high-low player, and Australia has little backup when he goes low.

Alex Doolan and Shaun Marsh are batsmen with mediocre first-class records, who managed one good outing. Marsh’s innings in the previous Test produced instant advocates, who missed the irony in praising a batsman for his ninth first-class hundred in 13 seasons. His follow up was a Marsh masterstroke, out twice in three balls to make it six Test ducks from 15 innings. Cue Eminem: “Snap back to reality / Oh, there goes gravity / Oh, there goes Rabbit / He choked, he’s so mad”.

There aren’t a lot of options for Australia, either. Phil Hughes’s Shield form is months old, and he’s had another confusing stint on the sidelines. Shane Watson’s batting is much maligned, thought at least his positive approach might have proved more useful than Doolan’s anchor-drop that allowed South Africa to stabilise after Warner’s assault.

Of course, even the best line-ups collapse. England’s team sheet looked pretty good before the Ashes, reading Cook, Trott, Bell and Pietersen. South Africa were smashed one Test ago with Graeme Smith, Amla, du Plessis and de Villiers. India were steamrolled in Australia with Sehwag, Laxman, Tendulkar and Dravid. It is, aside from the rebirth of Johnson, the signature achievement of this Australian side that a batting order so lacking in top-ranked talent has been able to get the job done one way or another.

We have been waiting to see whether this success is an aberration that will pass, or an early indicator of the level that an improving team will reach. For now, Australia’s batting remains vulnerable. If Steyn can repeat his work when the third Test starts at Newlands, that vulnerability will be seen as completely exposed. But if this Australian side can come back from his demolition, the charm protecting them will only have grown all the stronger.

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