After all the drama, all the tears and the sackings and resignations, Australia’s Test tour of South Africa picked up in Johannesburg where it had left off after three days in Cape Town: with a compelling contest.
With South Africa slipping away at one point to 2 for 247, making the most of a good pitch after electing to bat, Australia hauled the balance back to 6 for 313 by stumps.
Just as he had in the first innings in Cape Town, Patrick Cummins was the man to prompt that comeback with a pair of wickets in consecutive balls, before debutant Chadd Sayers was rewarded for a day of toil with two wickets in three.
Sayers was a rare piece of cheerful news in a week that has been epically disheartening for Australian cricket, no matter what your position on the ball-tampering offence of three players and their subsequent punishment.
With former captain Steve Smith, former deputy David Warner, and opener Cameron Bancroft all sent home with lengthy bans from international and state cricket, the team already needed three changes. A potential stress fracture for Mitchell Starc made it four.
Sayers was the ready replacement. For so long, he has toured with Australian sides, been picked in squads, and especially at Adelaide Oval, made it as far as the final XII.
Every time a playing XI has been picked, though, he has been left to ride the pine and run the drinks.
“I am excited to involved in my first Ashes series,” he said at Adelaide last December, “but mixing cordial isn’t what I want to do.”
Finally, at the age of 30, a baggy green cap was his. It was presented to him by former Australian batsman Adam Voges, and the newly minted Test player refused to take it off during his pre-game drills.
The other cheerful news came with the returns of Matthew Renshaw, Joe Burns, and Peter Handscomb, filling three spots in the top four.
Handscomb has been the reserve all tour, while the other two flew in after opening together for Queensland in the Sheffield Shield final.
It was perhaps a blessing that South Africa batted first, giving those batsmen some time acclimatise to the light and the altitude, observe the pitch plays, and get another chance at a night’s sleep to get into the right time zone.
Renshaw first came into the team after another humiliation against South Africa, the thrashing handed out in Hobart in November 2016.
Five changes were made for the next Test in Adelaide, including the young Queenslander.
Now here he was, the face of renewal after another Test team clean-out. While he lost the first slip position he had once held to the less mobile Shaun Marsh, his speed and dedication in the field brought at immediate spark.
Burns, meanwhile, is the man Renshaw replaced from that Hobart side. Burns is also the first of those five discarded players to mount a comeback.
Voges was another, but is watching this series from the comfort and retirement and the commentary booth.
You would get varying odds on the returns of Callum Ferguson, Peter Nevill, and Joe Mennie.
In Johannesburg, a buoyant Sayers was given the new ball, and set about finding a modicum of swing on a good length, just as he has done through the domestic career that had already earned him 246 first-class wickets.
Bashing Dean Elgar on the box in his first over was also a sign of intent. On a true batting pitch though, it was tough work for the bowlers.
Josh Hazlewood produced the occasional jaffa, but in between times Aiden Markram drove both sides of the wicket with style.
The fifty partnership came up before the early introduction of Nathan Lyon’s off-spin did Elgar in again, another leading edge as his happened repeatedly this series. This one settled in the hands of mid-off.
But Markram cruised on, marked by some cracking cuts and pulls, with support from Hashim Amla who soon passed 1,000 runs at the Wanderers ground.
Markram’s milestone after lunch was scoring the most runs for a South African in a series against Australia since bilateral ties resumed in 1991, passing Amla’s mark of 377, but as if that were a sign, Amla was out for 27 next ball, edging Cummins to second slip.
Markram went on to his fourth Test century shortly before tea.
Sayers bowled especially well to AB de Villiers after the break with the old ball, the champion batsman at one point crawling to 18 from 66 balls after multiple false shots against Sayers’ swing.
He got going later against Lyon: a full-blooded sweep through square, a lap-sweep through fine leg, then a mighty pull for six, all in one over that cost 15.
Then the final and dramatic shift, with Cummins getting reward after another day of hard work.
A tired Markram flashed to gully for 152, having recently passed two innings of 143 to post his highest Test score, then the next ball Faf du Plessis was leg-before without playing a shot.
The South African captain’s shot was one of a batsman devoid of confidence, premeditating a bouncer only to realise halfway through ducking that the ball was full.
It hit him just outside the line while his bat was over his head, and de Villiers waved away talk of a review.
He and Temba Bavuma charged on to 4 for 299, then when Sayers was entrusted with the new ball once again, it did the trick.
Inswing drew the faintest inside edge from de Villiers’ drive, one the batsman himself didn’t feel. His DRS referral was struck down when audio technology showed a nick.
Sayers then made short work of the early nightwatchman, tricking Kagiso Rabada into a mistimed check-drive that was pouched by a short mid-off, doubling Sayers’ Test wicket tally in the space of two balls.
South Africa went to stumps with the upper hand, and the chance for Bavuma and Quinton de Kock to push on tomorrow, but some quick wickets to Australia will even out the contest again.
An even contest. Exactly as this series should be.
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