The last time Pat Cummins played South Africa, he toiled for 46.5 overs out of Australia’s 241.5, prising out nine wickets in the match while being set 612 runs to win and beaten by almost as many. It was Johannesburg in 2018, and punishment for the sandpaper debacle was first levied on the field. “We don’t always have to finish a Test in four days,” smiled South Africa’s future captain Dean Elgar.
In their next meeting in Brisbane this week, Cummins bowled a breezy 25 overs across two innings, picking up seven wickets on his way to starting this three-match series by captaining a win.
Cummins and his bowling colleagues had brought about something extraordinary: a Test match run and won in the first two playing days. Only once before in the game’s 145 years has this happened in Australia, when Don Bradman and Bert Ironmonger towelled up the West Indies at the MCG in 1931. Of the 2482 Test matches played across the world, 23 have been two-dayers. Nine of those were in the 1800s, five of the six in the last 20 years have had Zimbabwe or Afghanistan on the receiving end.
Yet here we were, with South Africa at the Gabba bowled out for 99 in their second innings, setting only 34 to win in the afternoon after wrapping up Australia’s first innings for 218 in the morning. The way Australia staggered there, four wickets down, even another 50 runs would have made the result interesting.
Naturally this will invite questioning of the pitch, emerald green and full of juice. There was plenty for the bowlers, with lavish seam movement and rapid bounce. But the idea that it was unplayable should be refuted by Travis Head’s 92 from 96 balls when Australia batted, not to mention the countering from Khaya Zondo in the third innings or Kyle Verreyne in the first.
Expectations before the match were that South Africa’s frail batting would be badly overmatched, while their dangerous bowling would challenge Australia but not by enough to bridge that gap. That’s exactly how the match played out, just in 1.5x fast forward.
It was Head who commanded the game’s balance when he resumed on the second morning at 145 for five, his own score 78 not out after his blazing counterattack the evening before. Under overcast skies and facing firebrands Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje, Cameron Green wanted to follow that method. In the space of five Rabada deliveries, Australia went from trailing by seven runs to taking the lead. Green shifted his tall frame onto the front foot and thundered both bowlers down the ground with his straight drive. In six overs they were ahead by 29.
Marco Jansen shifted things back, the left-armer having Green caught for 18 by Sarel Erwee at first slip after a rebound from third, then Head gloving a catch down the leg side. Alex Carey did his one-day cricket job for 22 not out, busily collating runs including an all-sprinted four, while Mitchell Starc whacked 14 before hitting Lungi Ngidi a return catch, and Rabada picked up Cummins and Nathan Lyon to finish with four wickets. Australia’s lead was 66.
That would prove more than enough though, as they tore through South Africa a second time. Cummins cut an in-ducker off the seam to hit Elgar in front, then Green used all of his height to reel in a catch off Erwee in the gully. In between times Rassie van der Dussen failed to play for Starc’s inswinger, leaving a gate open for the fast bowler to drive through. It was Starc’s 300th wicket, joining a select Australian parade of Brett Lee, Mitchell Johnson, Dennis Lillee, Lyon, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.
That made it three wickets for five runs just after the lunch break. Zondo and Temba Bavuma batted for an hour to put on 42 before Lyon got into the act, an off-break keeping low and hitting Bavuma in front playing on the back foot. Scott Boland jumped in to take multiple wickets in an over for the fifth time in his five-Test career, Verreyne caught at slip and Jansen bowled. Zondo began to hit out, playing some thrilling shots for 36 not out to take South Africa into a lead, but Starc and Cummins kept knocking over his tail-end partners, Cummins finishing with 5-42.
The small run chase was bizarre, Rabada drawing catch after catch into the cordon in between he and Nortje trying bouncers that cleared the keeper and flew away for byes or wides. He took four wickets for 13 runs, and would be cursing the opportunity lost by his team’s lack of runs. But 19 out of Australia’s eventual 35 were donated by South Africa, and the chance to press for the most unlikely of wins was lost. South Africa will go to Melbourne as they arrived in Brisbane, as a side whose batting must lift if they are to compete. No surface in the world will change that.