It was all looking so good for Australia at the close of Day 1 of the first Test against South Africa at the WACA. The visitors had been bundled out cheaply, for 242, Mitchell Starc was fit and firing with a four-fer and David Warner and Shaun Marsh had put on 100 easy runs as Australia looked to get over the nightmare 3-0 whitewash they suffered in Sri Lanka.
If Day 1 was a dream, Days 2-5 werea nightmare. The frail middle order was exposed by South Africa as it had been by Sri Lanka. The bowling, too, looked toothless second time of asking as South Africa notched up 540/8dec to leave Australia the impossible chase of 539.
The problems are obvious. Warner and Steve Smith are Australia’s only threatening batsmen and without Starc, this bowling attack is weak. Mitchell Marsh has never convinced as a replacement for Shane Watson, who himself failed to convince in the final years of his Test career.
Nathan Lyon was ruthlessly attacked right down through South Africa’s tail, recording second innings figures of 0/146 and none of the bowlers exerted any real pressure. South Africa positively cantered to a 177 run win that looked all but impossible at stumps on Day 1.
The sides reconvene in Hobart for the second of three Tests, and Sun Bets can’t split the sides, with nigh on evens on the draw and 2/1 on either side to win it. You’d have got far longer odds on South Africa on Thursday evening!
Smith’s burgeoning captaincy career is faltering here. The side were a mess in Sri Lanka and they look a mess now. Four Test defeats on the spin isn’t a good look and the side responded well to Warner’s leadership when he deputised for Smith during the ODI leg of the Sri Lanka tour. As the side’s best batsman, however, Smith must be handled with care but he desperately needs a positive result in Hobart.
Two Marshes in the top six looks two too many, too. Shaun is an unconvincing opener and Mitchell an unconvincing all-rounder. Usman Khawaja is showing signs of real development and is aesthetically delightful to watch. Smith at four is a world class option but Adam Voges’s career Indian Summer has turned to Autumn as the runs, like leaves from a tree, desert him. Younger replacements must be sought.
There is also confusion amongst the selectors. Jackson Bird, a bowler, was omitted from the squad for the first Test, with Joe Mennie instead getting the nod. The reason? Mennie’s superior batting.
Cricket Australia’s attempts to stifle the development of the national side are also beginning to bear fruit. A hectic schedule, confused decision making and seemingly no direction is a recipe for disaster. After South Africa depart, Pakistan arrive for three Tests before Australia depart for a Test series in India.
Things could get worse before they get better. If this doesn’t quite constitute a crisis yet, a series defeat to South Africa followed by the same treatment at the hands of an impressive Pakistan side, will. These are unusually nervy and uncertain times for Australian cricket.
By Miles Reucroft