Australia lay foundation before weather halts day one

Australia took advantage of winning the toss and batting at the SCG before the game was called off due to inclement weather. South Africa’s irritation at losing a disputed slip catch off Marnus Labuschagne was only surpassed by the difficulties imposed by Sydney’s usual new year wet, which limited day one of the third NRMA Insurance Test to 47 of a planned 90 overs.

Australian Marnus, Khawaja post the fifties before Nortje gets a reward

Aussies lay foundation before weather halts day one-2

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Under a continuous layer of dense overcast that rendered poor light more challenging than infrequent rains, Australia absorbed early pressure before making steady progress until Labuschagne’s late dismissal left them 2-147 when stumps were called at 5.50 pm. Usman Khawaja’s love affair with the SCG will continue tomorrow, when he resumes undefeated on 54, alongside Steve Smith (yet to face a ball), with Australia’s batting lineup facing an illness-related change.

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The visitors may have felt vindicated when Labuschagne went out to a 145kph thunderbolt from Anrich Nortje that touched the outer edge of his bat one delivery before umpires ruled it was too dark for hitters to face fast bowlers. While it was a difficult decision for Australia’s number three, who seemed ready for his fourth century of another magnificent Test summer – but his first against his birth nation – the late hit alleviated some of the Proteas’ building rage.

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The tussle arose after Labuschagne reached 70 and edged a ball from left-armer Marco Jansen low to Simon Harmer standing deep at slip, who claimed it low to the ground but was plain of the opinion he had grabbed it cleanly. Despite on-field umpire Paul Reiffel’s indication that it was a fair catch after requesting an off-field explanation, third official Richard Kettleborough conducted a thorough study before concluding on a single video frame he thought proved the ball had hit the ground as the catch was made.

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Nortje snorter has Labuschagne caught behind

Nortje snorter has Labuschagne caught behind

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While hardly a blazing gun, it was enough for Kettleborough to overrule the on-field judgment, to South Africa’s chagrin, with keeper Kyle Verreynne and opener Sarel Erwee engaged in a protracted and heated debate with Labuschagne before he resumed his innings. In his defense, Labuschagne was as certain from the start that he was not out and that the ultimate verdict justified him.

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However, the continuous worsening of the afternoon light, followed by the arrival of rain soon before 3 p.m., gave both sides more than two hours to digest the situation before Labuschagne resumed innings that had produced nary a false stroke until that disputed moment. No sooner had Labuschagne limped dejectedly off the field, to be replaced at the crease by Smith, than umpires agreed with Khawaja’s remark that circumstances were too dark, and play was called off for the day.

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As it turned out, the barely 200 minutes of playtime produced more than its fair share of talking topics. Matthew Renshaw’s return to the Test ranks after a nearly five-year absence was bittersweet, as the Queenslander returned a positive COVID-19 result soon after play started and spent the day apart from his teammates, officials, and the 31,264 spectators while remaining active in the action. Renshaw was one of three changes to Australia’s starting XI from last week, with spinner Ashton Agar and seamer Josh Hazlewood replacing injured combo Mitchell Starc and Cameron Green, and Scott Boland being withdrawn.

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South Africa also played a reshuffled XI, albeit the additions of Heinrich Klaasen (instead of No. 3 Theunis de Bruyn, who went home for family reasons) and off-spinner Harmer (in place of seamer Lungi Ngidi) did nothing to improve their on-field fortunes. In addition to stirring ire, Labuschagne had raised eyes before the day’s first drinks break when he signaled urgently to the Australia dressing room for a cigarette and/or a lighter to go with it.

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Marnus survives the catch review

Marnus survives the catch review

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When the break was taken, it was discovered that the naked flame was required to cauterize some wayward threads that had developed inside his protective batting helmet. After completing the on-the-run adjustment, Labuschagne ramped up the fire on South Africa’s bowlers. After taking 45 minutes (and 31 deliveries) to get six runs, the 28-year-old regained his rhythm and surpassed Khawaja as the duo headed to lunch undefeated on 30 and 25, respectively.

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The Proteas were ecstatic when Khawaja was ruled out lbw straight after the interval, only to be disappointed when Richard Gaffaney’s call was reversed almost as swiftly on review. Khawaja then marked the reprieve with his 4000th Test run, a fairly magnificent drive to the cover boundary. At 36 years and 17 days, the left-hander becomes Australia’s most senior men’s player to accomplish the milestone, surpassing former Test colleague Michael Hussey, who did it at the age of 35 years and 130 days.

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It caps off a spectacular comeback for Khawaja, who has scored 1130 runs at an average of 75 per innings since being returned to Australia’s Test squad for the same Sydney Test a year ago. The former New South Welshman also welcomed his return to his old home field, where he averages 107, second only to England’s Walter Hammond (161) and India’s Sachin Tendulkar (157) among those who have batted five or more times in Tests at the stadium.

Aussies lay foundation before weather halts day one-1

In the hour after lunch, he and Labuschagne were playing with greater fluency against spinners Keshav Maharaj and Harmer, setting a 100-run stand for the second wicket in the 37th over. However, when the thick clouds drifted in and the visitors’ heavy artillery was deployed, Labuschagne had a rare moment of anxiety when Rabada launched a short ball at his upper torso, forcing the right-hander to take evasive movement.

The Proteas first thought the ball that looped into keeper Verreynne’s hands had flown off Labuschagne’s gloves, but correctly chose not to review the not-out decision as replays revealed it had touched the batter’s chest not far from his neck. After Dean Elgar called the coin toss wrong for the third consecutive Test, South Africa’s feeling of grievance may have justifiedly begun to brew before a ball was bowled today.

It not only completed a stunning clean sweep of victories for Pat Cummins over five NRMA Insurance Tests this summer, but it also deprived the visitors of their favored choice to bat first and make the running in a match. When David Warner, the match’s double-century scorer and player of the match last week in Melbourne, died in the fourth over as he sought to instantly restart his assault on the Proteas bowlers at the MCG, the setback didn’t seem quite so serious.

After a pair of signature boundaries from Rabada’s bowling – an uppercut behind point followed by a swivel pull – Warner attempted to press the tempo too frequently and suffered the price. The ball from Nortje that he tried to shove through the off-side was too full and a little too near to him for the aggressive choice, and the quick offering to slip was made to seem simple by 207cm Jansen, who gripped it at chin height. The sluggish but not low Sydney pitch presented a surface that demanded caution in the immediate wake of Warner’s withdrawal.

50 for Khawaja at happy hunting ground

50 for Khawaja at happy hunting ground

That was the attitude Khawaja and Labuschagne used for most of the rest of the first session, with just 31 runs coming from the 16 overs after the opener was dismissed. The entrance of left-arm spinner Maharaj half an hour before the lunch break accelerated the pace. From the start of the series in Brisbane last month, Australia made it plain that Maharaj would be the bowler in the Proteas’ line-up they wanted to target, and he didn’t help his case by starting with a shin-high full-toss that Khawaja promptly blasted to the extra cover boundary.

Despite Elgar’s reaffirmation of Maharaj as South Africa’s main spinner previous to this Test, Maharaj started his stint with serial numbers of 0-152, which had blown out to 0-187 by stumps. The previous South African bowler to visit Australia and bowl longer than Maharaj’s current 52.5 overs without claiming a wicket was fellow South African finger spinner David Pithey on the 1963-64 tour when he was dropped for the last two matches.

Second-string spinner Harmer, on the other hand, looked dangerous from the start, with the third ball he sent down – his third in Test cricket since the middle of last year – fizzing past the outside edge of Khawaja’s speculative bat. Harmer had Khawaja declared lbw in his first over after the break as he seemed to fail to make contact with an aggressive reverse sweep, only for the batter’s quick demand for DRS adjudication to establish the ball had brushed glove before making a hit with the pad.

As South Africa lamented their brief victory, Australia’s set pair went on the offensive, scoring 26 runs in six overs, much outpacing the pace of the first session, leading Elgar to bring out the seamers. Labuschagne helped himself to a pair of boundaries from Rabada’s opening over, the second of which provided the Australia number three’s 24th half-century in Tests, ten of which he also turned into centuries.


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