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Cricket: Proteas show Steyn-less steel in great WACA fightback on day two

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 04-11-2016 Antoinette Muller
<p>South African bowler Keshav Maharaj (R) reacts after dismissing Australian batsman Peter Neville on day two of the first Test match between Australia and South Africa at the Western Australia Cricket Ground (WACA) in Perth, Western Australia, Australia, 04 November 2016. EPA/DAVE HUNT</p> © Copyright (c) Daily Maverick 2013, All Rights Reserved

South African bowler Keshav Maharaj (R) reacts after dismissing Australian batsman Peter Neville on day two of the first Test match between Australia and South Africa at the Western Australia Cricket Ground (WACA) in Perth, Western Australia, Australia, 04 November 2016. EPA/DAVE HUNT

Dale Steyn crouched down on the Perth pitch, shoulder clutch and face contorted in a grimace; the door marked "Hope" that had been nudged ajar after he dismissed David Warner seemed slammed shut again.

Warner, who had bullied South Africa on day one and continued on his merry way to 97 on day two, finally got his marching orders from the South African pace ace late in the first session on Friday. But Steyn paid a hefty price for putting some elbow grease into his efforts. Having been cranking up his speeds since day one, Steyn was felled by his troublesome shoulder in his first over back after dismissing the danger man. He didn't need much convincing to be taken off the field and carted off to hospital to have a scan.

That, cynics would have told you, would have been that. But South Africa isn't a team to leave doors ajar, especially not when that ball is pushing them up against a wall. Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and rookie Keshav Maharaj produced a vintage fightback performance without the leader of the pack, and after suffering quite a rude awakening on day one.

As forgettable as South Africa's bowlers were on Thursday, everything about Friday was memorable. Despite the fast disappearing first innings total, the Proteas were more aggressive, more probing, and just generally moreish as Australia lost ten wickets for just 86 runs after their impressive opening stand. So moreish were the South Africans that, at one stage, the umpires stepped in to have a rather stern chat to captain Faf du Plessis about his charges getting just a little bit too chirpy.

Scores (Day 2): South Africa: 242 & 104/2 against Australia: 244

But even with the chirp turned down to a mere murmur, South Africa managed to stamp their authority all over the Australians with Ravensmead Wrecker, Philander, leading the demolition derby, picking up four for 56.

Rabada - with two for 78 - and debutant Maharaj - with three for 56 - did the rest as just three Australians, barring the openers, managed to register double figures. If everything went wrong for South Africa on the first day, everything went right on Friday and suddenly, we're in for what is effectively a one innings Test with the hosts managing the measliest of leads – just two runs more than the Proteas' total.

Despite the early dismissals of Stephen Cook – who hasn't looked comfortable on this tour yet – and Hashim Amla – who was tamely dismissed in both innings – Dean Elgar and JP Duminy have done a good job to knuckle down the second innings so far.

Those who have pondered dropping Duminy (these pages included) in favour of an additional bowling option might be forced to reconsider if he kicks on on the third day. The pair navigated South Africa to safety – and a lead of 102 – show far better application than any of the South Africans did on day one. As the cliché goes, day three will be crucial.

Winning this Test will still take some considerable effort. First, South Africa's batsmen will have to contend with the earthquake-like crack down the middle of the pitch which will only widen as the mercury rises to around 37 degrees centigrade on Saturday. The flipside to that is if they can stick it out, there are few things as demoralising for a bowling attack as spending a full day running in the blazing heat for no reward, especially after getting off to such a dominant start.

With so much time left in this match, South Africa will probably be looking to bat as long as possible, both to crush the Australian attack and boost their own batting confidence bit. However long that might last, they will have to go into the fourth innings with a bowler short, after he was ruled out of the series with a broken bone in his shoulder.  This will be their biggest challenge and Maharaj might have to shoulder considerable responsibility on debut.

The early signs, though, are good. When the spinner was given the opportunity to be more attacking – after Steyn had gone to hospital – he set attacking fields, not afraid to leak runs despite the low total and earned just rewards. The WACA might have a reputation for favouring the quicks, but as stats show, the spinner's role here is just as critical and will only become more so as that big crack opens up.

Philander and Rabada will have to be managed well by skipper Du Plessis. Short, sharp bursts with either Maharaj or a part-timer holding up one end might have to form part of the strategy. It might be the more passive approach, but they need to ensure their frontliners stay fit for the rest of this series.

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