Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann has pointed to the pragmatic example set by Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla as a key lesson for the touring batsmen after the Port Elizabeth Test, after they weathered the sharpest blows of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins to ease the path that AB de Villiers so artfully exploited.
Elgar and Amla soaked up 46.2 overs in a partnership of 88 that made for some absorbing if slow-going Test match cricket, and most importantly they were able to keep out the Australian “big three” pacemen during extended periods of reverse swing. While several quick wickets were lost after tea on day two, the investment put in by the top order – however ugly it looked – proved invaluable when de Villiers began to play with far more freedom alongside the tail.
In assessing where the Australians went wrong at St George’s Park, Lehmann reckoned that sort of stoic top-order batting had been required, for while David Warner and Cameron Bancroft put on 98 for the first wicket, the highest stand of the match, there was little behind them in terms of partnerships that could tire out South Africa’s attack.
“Certainly I thought Elgar and Amla showed our blokes a little bit how to get through that and as we know when your bowlers are starting to bowl 25 overs an innings it is starting to get to be tough work,” Lehmann said. “You make your runs at the back end against quality attacks and that’s what we’ve got to get better at.
“Not enough runs in the first innings as you saw, at 0 for 98 I thought we were going really well, and then that either-side period of tea we lost 4 for 9 and 8 for 80 in that, and then 10-11 did really well to get us to 243, but still it was 50-75 runs short. If we have those runs … and we’re probably short in the second innings to be fair, short another 50 there. Batting’s got to improve as we know.
“I don’t think we bowled as well to [de Villiers] as we could’ve, that’s an area we can certainly improve on, but in general I think our bowling was first-rate again. If we had the extra 100 runs it would’ve been a rip-snorter of a Test match. From our point of view to AB we’ve got to bowl better to him, he’s a class player.”
While Warner and Bancroft had given Australia the ideal start, a lack of centuries in either of the first two Tests – South Africa have made two, from de Villiers and Aiden Markram – has hurt. Lehmann pointed to both Bancroft and Usman Khawaja as players who could have gone on to more substantial innings. He also said the captain Steven Smith was unhappy with his output, and would look to atone at Newlands.
“That was good, they both looked good,” Lehmann said. “You’d love them to go on, that’s the difference at the moment, AB went on, got 140 and that hurts you in this sort of format when the series is going to be so tight, runs are going to be at a premium against two quality bowling attacks. We need those guys to go on once they get in.
“There’s a few good players in the series full stop, not just those two, de Villiers and Smith. He’s disappointed with his output, he sets his standards so high, so we expect him to come back strong in the last two Test matches and have a real impact.”
A groin strain to Mitchell Marsh is another of Australia’s concerns ahead of the third Test in Cape Town, and Lehmann said it would be a case of assessing his fitness in the 10-day break between Tests before deciding whether a replacement player – possible Marcus Stoinis – would be required to make the trip across the Indian Ocean.
“Reasonably confident but we’ll see over the next couple of days, medical staff will have a look at him and assess him and then make a call from there. We’re hopeful for the next Test,” Lehmann said. “[A replacement] sort of depends on what we want and what we could get in Cape Town. We’ll have to sum that up the next couple of days, once we get there and have a look.
“He’s close to made our most runs, we haven’t had a lot of runs in the series so far, but he’s looking as good as anyone at the moment. [With the] ball, he was going to be important, and he was important for us with those couple wickets late on day two, it would’ve been nice to pick up a few more and restrict them by 30 or 40.
“We’ve got a break now, lucky enough to have a bit of downtime for the lads over three or four days and then we get into our prep for Cape Town. They’ve had a long summer, we’ve had a long summer, but you’ve seen how competitive it is out there. Both teams will be fine to go next Test.”
As for the loss of Kagiso Rabada from the series due to a two-match suspension, Lehmann said he would prefer to see the best players on the park, but added that it wouldn’t matter much if the Australians did not improve their own batting. “It’s never good seeing fantastic bowlers out of series,” he said. “They’re going to miss him there’s no doubt about it, but they’ve got some pretty good bowlers that are back-ups, so for us it doesn’t matter who plays, we’ve got to play and bat better than first two Test matches.”