Australia takes the opening round at Centurion

Date: February 14, 2014 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

South African skipper Graeme Smith pushed his chips to the middle of the table on the opening day of the series but his gamble did not pay off.

After the coin fell in his favour he inserted the tourists.

When asked at the toss what he would have done had he won it, Michael Clarke said he would have batted as he felt the pitch would offer the quicks something in the first session but would flatten out after that.

In essence, right from ball one there was not a lot of life in the Centurion strip and by the time the 19th over had come around Smith had already introduced his specialist spinner Robin Peterson, his fifth bowler to that point of the innings.

South Africa had its moments early on with Australia losing both openers to be 2-24 and when Clarke fell for 23 it was 4-98.

It was soon however a case of déjà vu, as just like the Ashes, Australia’s opponent could not land the knockout blow.

Shaun Marsh (122no) and Steve Smith (91no) combined for an unbroken 199-run stand to have the tourists in command at stumps on 4-297.

That performance was well above par given the average opening day total at Centurion is 7-251.

The average first innings at the ground is 304 and Australia will sail well past that.

But the surface is anything but the traditional Centurion deck.

There was a distinct lack of bounce early on and that does not augur well for South Africa which is likely to bat last.

Smith’s decision to send Australia in was no doubt predicated on the side’s dramatic first innings collapses in several of the Ashes Tests earlier this summer.

He took the risk despite his preeminent strike bowler Dale Steyn having awoken with a stomach upset.

In the end, three of the four wickets – David Warner (23) bowled off an inside edge cutting at a ball not wide enough from Steyn; debutant Alex Doolan (27) caught at mid-wicket on the pull shot off Ryan McLaren; and Clarke falling at fine leg off Steyn – were largely gifted to the Proteas.

Chris Rogers (4) fell to some heady bowling from Morne Morkel who struck him on the upper body before getting a well-directed snorter in the same over that he parried to a diving J P Duminy at short leg.

When asked at the toss about the Australian line-up for the opening encounter Clarke confirmed Doolan’s debut and then said “obviously Shaun Marsh” – an emphatic comment that proved to be salient.

Marsh had his detractors when initially selected in the touring party – I was certainly one of them – but he justified the faith shown in him by the selectors, and then some!

The big surprise was the fact that he came in at number four with the skipper moving back to his more familiar number five.

It seemed a strange decision as it left a man on debut at three and next in a batsman who had virtually no red-ball form over the past three years.

It almost appeared as if Australia was somewhat conceding that the likes of Steyn, Morkel and Vernon Philander would be potent early and that holding Clarke back was the wise thing to do.

In the end Clarke arrived in the middle at 3-72, 13 minutes prior to lunch.

His record against the Proteas is imperious – an average of 70.3 from 12 Tests with four centuries – hence the exuberant celebration from Steyn when he claimed his cheaply.

In true Brett Lee style, he ripped the chord of the chainsaw four times whilst yelling at the top of his voice.

But it remained the last joy for the hosts on the opening day as they went wicket less over the next 56 overs.

Marsh struck the ball with great fluency, especially through the extra cover and mid-off region while Smith was his usual busy self.

In the final session the pace attack looked tired and lacklustre, perhaps amplified by the fact that they had played no first-class cricket for a month while they too gave way to their domestic T20 competition.

Having seen off eight overs of the second new ball through until stumps the tourists will start the second day in a commanding position.

The world number one needs to strike rapidly and often in the morning session or it will find itself playing catch-up for the remainder of the match.

Australia comprehensively won the opening day.

Time will tell whether it can also win the match.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 13 February 2014