TELFORD VICE, Adelaide Oval
IT’S taken more than two tests and plenty of strife, but at last Australia have put up a fight in their series against South Africa.
They did so on the broad bat and even broader shoulders of Usman Khawaja, who stood firm throughout the second day’s play in the third test in Adelaide on Friday for his undefeated 138.
“He never looked flustered, even when the ball beat his outside edge,” Peter Handscomb said of the centurion, who faced 285 balls, hit a dozen fours and has yet to offer a chance.
Khawaja’s effort helped Australia reach 307/6 in reply to South Africa’s first innings declaration of 259/9 on the least remarkable day’s play in a series that has not wanted for drama.
The lead of 48 is not yet significant, but it will mean a lot to a side who have lost 10 wickets for 86 and been dismissed for 85 in losing the first two tests and with them the series.
Indeed, South Africa threatened to light the spark for another collapse when they took three wickets for 10 runs in 29 deliveries with the new ball.
But Khawaja and Mitchell Starc, who was 16 not out at stumps, were having none of that – although Starc was saved from being trapped in front by Vernon Philander for four only because the ball had pitched marginally outside leg stump.
“If we can stretch that lead to 150, in a perfect world that would be awesome,” Handscomb said.
South Africa’s most consistently threatening bowler was Kyle Abbott, who moved the ball appreciably off the seam during daylight hours and found a touch of swing through the air after dark to take 3/38 from 25 overs – 11 of them maidens.
But he could have done with a little more help from what was billed as the fast bowler’s friend going into this match: the pink ball.
“We expected it to do a lot more,” Abbott said. “Early in the morning it did a bit and then it went quiet up until tea.
“After tea it seemed like the best time to bat, and then after dusk once the lights come on it did a bit – there’s more nip off the seam than swing through the air.
“But I don’t think it’s lived up to its hype and expectation.
Australia resumed on 14 without loss, and Abbott put a dent in that scoreline in the fourth over of the day when he had debutant Matt Renshaw well held low down by Dean Elgar diving to his right from third slip.
Dangerman David Warner went six overs later for 11. He was also caught by Elgar, but comfortably at chest height, to earn Abbott’s second wicket.
That reduced Australia to 37/2 but it also put their most dependable pair, Khawaja and Steve Smith, at the crease.
They batted together until the 10th over before dinner, when Smith wanted a single to point but was refused by Khawaja.
Smith tried to scramble back to the safety of the crease but was run out for 59 by Philander’s throw to Quinton de Kock to end a partnership worth 137.
Another debutant, Handscomb, joined Khawaja to share a stand of 99 that was snuffed out in the seventh over with the new ball with Abbott bowled Handscomb for 54 with an inswinger that snuck between bat and pad.
Handscomb, 25 and a veteran of 61 first-class matches, brought a brightness to Australia’s batting that has rarely been seen in the series.
Not so the home side’s third debutant, Nic Maddinson, who was bowled for a duck by a half-volley from Kagiso Rabada.
Six balls after that the home side were 283/6 when Philander had Matthew Wade caught behind with an away swinger.
Going on previous form Australia looked ripe for an implosion. But, perhaps because the sting has been drawn from this series, or perhaps because a country so blessed in quality players can’t play poorly forever, they did not.
They are a long way from being in the driving seat, but South Africa will know they are not as securely behind the wheel as they would prefer to be.