Aussies get serious ahead of Centurion
At a casual glance, this could have conceivably been a genuine first-class cricket match, perhaps even a Test.
The impeccably laundered and logo-emblazoned white playing strips, down to the baggy green caps donned by most on the fielding team. The meticulous field placements, the vocal support for bowlers, the undeniable technical acumen of those with bat and ball.
Even the fact the cavernous Wanderers Stadium (capacity 34,000) was devoid of more than a dozen spectators and echoed like a rim shot with each full-blooded stroke was sadly, not out of keeping with contemporary four and five-day matches played in some places around the world.
But on closer inspection, there were a few tell-tale discrepancies with first impressions.
The umpires, for a start, were wearing the same team kit as members of the bowling team’s support staff who shuttled regularly to and from the field. And same as the batting side’s, for that matter.
The pitch, despite the best efforts and repair jobs undertaken by the ground staff, more closely resembled a fourth-day parquetry than a day-one belter. Which, in fairness, it was.
It had been utilised for South Africa’s internal practice game played over the three days prior, which meant the wear and tear made the bounce unpredictable and the timing and surety of shot making just as problematic.
And then there were some of the slightly unusual occurrences that aren’t so often seen in the first-class arena, and distinguished this outing as a grandiose training exercise for a touring team desperate for any sort of competitive cricket rather than a bona fide fixture.
At times, the fielding team comprised of only 10 players. There were occasions when a batsman would give a bowler who came close to ending his innings a pat on the back or a few kind words of encouragement.
And at one point, the wicketkeeper retired from the field of play to prepare himself to bat for the other team, and was replaced by a fielding coach clad in training attire, a baseball mitt on his left hand and no protective pads.
He was, in turn, replaced an over later by a local youngster clad in regulation ‘keeper’s outfit, apart from his contrasting navy shorts.
When Phil Hughes was almost run out, having fleetingly thought he could steal a single to David Warner at backward point only to find himself in a photo finish when the stumps were thrown down, the fielding captain demonstrably called for a video review even though he knew full well it wasn’t available.
The previous time Michael Clarke tried that on – in a Bupa Sheffield Shield match late last year – he was reprimanded for dissent.
Upon watching Moises Henriques lift spinner Nathan Lyon over his head and beyond the fence at long-on, Chris Rogers was forced to scrabble around the concourse in search of the ball before locating it resting on a plastic seat, 10 rows back.
But this was far from a benign exercise. Considerably more than just a bit of competitive fun between teammates.
As the closest the Australians will come to simulated match conditions prior to the first Test against South Africa beginning at Centurion next Wednesday, there was no disputing that all involved were giving their utmost in adherence to the professional sporting mantra ‘train as you play’.
There was no concealing the disappointment of Rogers when he sparred at a typically probing delivery from Ryan Harris and edged a sharp chance that was unerringly snared by Phil Hughes at second slip.
There was nothing jocular about the Mitchell Johnson bouncer that sat Rogers’ opening partner Warner on his rump inside the first half hour, nor Warner’s attempt to hit Lyon out of the attack from his opening ball – a ploy that cost the left-hander his wicket.
And there was no leniency offered Steve Smith when he – having faced barely an over from James Pattinson and not having managed a run – was adjudged by his own bowling coach to have edged a catch behind, meaning his practice session was ended before it had got underway.
Smith was palpably of the view that he didn’t hit it, just as clearly as he was in the minority among his teammates who – for those few deliveries at least – had become his rivals.
While his and Rogers’ were the only single-figure failures, no other batsman managed to compile a score having made a start, as was the case for most of those Test incumbents and hopefuls who took part in the South African match on the same surface earlier in the week.
None, that is, except for recalled opener Hughes batting in the unfamiliar position of seven who more than doubled the next-best score and finished with an assured 83.
Maybe it was his determination to show he should have been included in the initial 15-man touring party rather than a last-minute call-up to replace injured Shaun Marsh.
Perhaps he wanted to disprove those who think he’s not suitable to fill the vacancy that exists at number six in the Test batting order having spent his career as a top-order specialist.
Or could it be that his unorthodox, home-spun technique is somehow tailor-made for South African conditions in which he prospered so memorably in his debut Test series five years ago?
Whatever the answer, he did his case no harm against – as the fielding skipper has described it – the world’s best bowling attack given that his rival for that spare batting role, Alex Doolan, scored 25 and lost his off stump shouldering arms to Pattinson.
Although Doolan’s case might have been bolstered by the sharp chance he accepted from Shane Watson while fielding at bat-pad – the other position made vacant by George Bailey’s axing – off Lyon’s bowling.
As might be expected on a fourth day track, the off-spinner was the most successful with three wickets while Harris was as impeccable as ever, Peter Siddle earnest, Pattinson found a purple patch as well as a couple of blue ones, and Johnson was undeniably fast though not altogether furious.
Which the batting team doubtless didn’t mind.
All of this was watched at close quarters by coach Darren Lehmann, who spent part of the day umpiring and much of the final session enjoying the afternoon sun at cover, mid-wicket and mid-on, not far from the spot he took the trophy-clinching catch at the same venue in the 2003 World Cup Final.
At day’s end, Australia’s total of 328 (albeit for 11 wickets) was pretty tidy given that no team in the South African derby had topped 300.
And also bearing in mind it was achieved against an attack that the batting team happily acknowledges has no peer in Test cricket.
The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Cricket Australia