South Africa bowled out at 189 in Test 2, Day 1

You know you’re in danger when the opposing captain wins the toss and, despite a plainly run-filled pitch, sends you in to bat. It’s an insult to both your hitters and your bowlers, and it’s the last thing you need when your confidence is shaken. But that’s what happens when you’ve reached rock bottom. South Africa reached that mark on Monday at the MCG (December 26). On a faultless surface, they were introduced and bowled out for 189. Then, presumably tired of cleaning up the mess the batsmen had caused for the umpteenth time, their bowlers enabled Australia to get to within 144 runs of parity for the loss of just Usman Khawaja’s wicket. Tuesday stands towering, gloomy, and unappealing to the guests.

The future looms tall, dark, and ugly for South Africa

South Africa bowled out at 189 in Test 2, -1

The South Africans have now been dismissed for less than 200 runs in seven straight innings, according to Monday’s dismal batting. From March 1889 to March 1896, the South Africans‘ first 12 Test innings were all snuffed out for between 151 and 30 runs. Between August 1912 and December 1913, they were bowled out for less than 200 five times in a row between 182 and 93. They’ve had three four-in-a-row streaks, the most recent in November and December 2015, and six three-in-a-row streaks, the most recent between June and December 2021. Seven is in a class of its own.

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Who is to say it will not be eight by the conclusion of the second Test? Or if South Africa doesn’t erase that 19th-century record before the summer sunsets? It’s a gloomy view, but after Monday’s devastation, how else can we perceive the glass except as more than half-empty and cracked? The first half-dozen sub-200 performances in the present crisis – and it is undeniably a crisis – were all recorded in circumstances meant to limit run scoring and increase the likelihood of early dismissal. That wasn’t the case this time, as Kyle Verreynne admitted at a press conference when comparing the surface to the Gabba’s, which was considered below average after the first Test: “There doesn’t seem to be much grass. There didn’t seem to be as much seam movement today. It’s a better pitch for batting.

South Africa bowled out at 189 in Test 2, -3

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So the guests had no one to blame but themselves. “Today’s [performance] is more difficult to stomach than the previous six innings,” remarked Verreynne. “There was a lot of terrific bowling in those games, and we kept to our game plans. Today was the first time we had more gentle dismissals than hard dismissals. That’s unfortunate.” Two of them stood out in particular. Theunis de Bruyn looked serious in his first Test since October 2019, striking a respectable 12 off the first 29 balls he faced. Cameron Green’s 30th was short and rose beyond De Bruyn’s upper-cutting bat. Will he learn his lesson? No. De Bruyn pushed into a wild pull in the 31st, sending a top edge skewing past the cordon, where Alex Carey collected the catch.

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Dean Elgar achieved something he hadn’t done in his previous 141 Test innings after 17 deliveries and eight minutes before lunch. He shoved Mitchell Starc into the covers, summoned Temba Bavuma for a single that never materialized, and took off. Marcus Labuschagne slipped, collected, and threw from one knee. The ball struck the stumps at the non-end, striker leaving Elgar out by an embarrassingly enormous margin, marking the only time he was run out. Starc’s next delivery, a sharp away swinger, was edged to Carey by Bavuma. South Africa had fallen from 54/1 to 58/4, with neither of their batsmen at the crease, Khaya Zondo or Verreynne, having faced a ball. Labuschagne leaped to grab Zondo’s brilliant cover drive from Starc in the fifth over after lunch to reduce South Africa to 67/5 and set the scene for their only partnership of 30 or more.

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It lasted 219 pitches, produced 112 runs, and raised more questions than it answered. How could a wicketkeeper and a fast bowler, two of the team’s most inexperienced players, score more runs than their more experienced seniors and, apparently, betters? Verreynne is in his 13th Test, while Marco Jansen is in his ninth. Without their contribution, which lasted almost three hours, South Africa may have faced another humiliation in two days, as they did in Brisbane.

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South Africa done and dusted for 189

South Africa bowled out at 189 in Test 2, -2

The dismissals of Verreynne and Jansen were part of a stunning clatter of five wickets for 10 runs that terminated the innings in an ignominious inferno of 24 deliveries. The Australians bowled admirably, none more so than Green, who took 5/27 after Starc was forced from the field with a finger injury. But not good enough for Green, a hitting allrounder, to grab his last four for four runs in a dozen pitches. South Africa’s plight extends beyond technique, which should not be discussed at this level.

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Instead, it’s what occurs when the distance between first-class and Test cricket widens, not least because the best batsmen and bowlers seldom play domestic cricket. They are almost always resting or earning money that CSA cannot afford to pay them. As a result, statistics generated in the first-class game cannot be relied on to identify individuals with the ability to make the move up. As a result, there are no fast solutions to South Africa’s issues other than the present generation of batters slogging their way to brighter days, however long that may take.

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That seems unjust to them, considering that the South Africans could bank on one or more of their top four all-time run scorers to keep them out of danger for over 24 years. Hashim Amla retired in February 2019, whereas Jacques Kallis made his debut in December 1995. Their careers were sandwiched between those of Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers. During that span, South Africa played 235 Tests, with at least one of the fab four appearing in all but nine of them. South Africa won 116 games and lost 62, for a winning percentage of 49.36 and a losing percentage of 26.38%. Since the conclusion of the Kallis-Smith-De Villiers-Amla era, they have played 24 Tests. With 11 wins, they have a similar success rate of 45.83%. However, they lose substantially more frequently: 54.17% of the time. They are 27.79% weaker than they were when Kallis, Smith, De Villiers, or Amla, or a combination of the three, were in their XI.

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When South Africa returned to Test cricket under Kepler Wessels in April 1992, the attitude was to make sure they couldn’t lose before trying to win. They’ve lost even that skill after more than 30 years: it’s tough to envision any of their players batting for almost eight hours to rescue a Test, as Faf du Plessis did in Adelaide in November 2012. But how can you consider striving to win when your primary goal is to avoid losing?

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Under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes, England has answered that question emphatically by winning nine of their ten Tests while playing with what some would consider reckless freedom. “If the goal of winning is always stronger than the fear of losing, you’re always going to be OK,” Stokes told the BBC on Monday. South Africa is not in good shape. They don’t have the attitude or, it looks, the talent to play like they used to, much alone like England does now.

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One of the few bonds that South Africans of whatever race, religion, culture, or belief have is a stifling conservatism; a desperate need to cling to obsolete notions and ways of doing things for fear of embracing change and new realities. That is why, more than 28 years after it was democratically destroyed at the ballot box, apartheid is still fiercely alive outside the ivory towers where our constitution and laws are kept. But here’s a nugget of truth to hold to, a cause to be, if not cheery, then at least not depressed: South Africa is the only side to have defeated England when McCullum and Stokes were in charge. That happened in August. You know you’re in danger when it seems like August was a long time ago.

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