Test match cricket got a burst of life for the southern summer, as 29,306 turned up for the biggest non-Ashes crowd at the Gabba. They were treated to a sizzling first day: Australia dismissed South Africa for 152 just before the tea break, slipped to 27 for three in reply, produced an astonishing counterattack from Travis Head and Steve Smith, then lost Smith and the nightwatchman, Scott Boland, to reach stumps at 145 for five.
It was another Brisbane special from Head, who followed his Ashes century a year ago with a carefree 78 not out from 77 balls in the final session. Smith had already begun positively, hitting his first ball through cover for four and producing some immaculate straight drives.
In half a dozen overs together before the third-session drinks break, the two took stock, then ransacked 69 runs in eight overs after the break. Head raised his 50 at better than a run a ball thanks to a six off Lungi Ngidi over backward square-leg. It was bewildering for a South Africa attack that had been right on top and suddenly began bowling waywardly, offering width for him to punish.
The session had started with a bang, Kagiso Rabada resuming his 2018 duel with David Warner by bowling a short ball at his ribs, the opener fending above the head of short-leg, where Khaya Zondo climbed air to take a one-handed catch. It was Warner’s second golden duck of his 181-innings Test career, and the first that had begun an innings.
Marnus Labuschagne saw off Rabada and Ngidi, but fell to the first ball from the tall left-arm swing bowler Marco Jansen, angling across him to Dean Elgar at slip. Anrich Nortje’s pure pace was evident in a delivery that leapt from the shoulder of Usman Khawaja’s bat to the gully. Soon afterwards Head edged into the cordon but just short of Elgar.
It was the only near miss in his innings, as he proceeded to carve the bowling apart. All up he and Smith added 113 in 23 overs, threatening to take over the game completely. But Nortje rallied for one more burst, jagging the ball extravagantly off the seam to cut past Smith’s bat and take out middle stump, gone for 36.
Boland did his job of batting into the last over before nicking Rabada, bringing the end of the day’s play and sparing Cameron Green a trip to the middle.
It leaves South Africa in the match for now, although another hour of Head in the morning would be too much to bear. That is more than they might have hoped for after that first-innings score. Gabba pitches can be much better for batting than they look, but as a fast-bowling captain, Patrick Cummins was happy to send in the visitors. A green surface, some cloud cover, and a chance to test their fragile batting while delaying their strong bowling: everything pointed to that decision.
Elgar fell early, nudging a leg-side ball from Mitchell Starc to wicketkeeper Alex Carey. Cummins had radar struggles but removed Rassie van der Dussen as soon as he corrected them, hitting the perfect line and length to draw a nick. Then it was Boland taking multiple wickets in an over as has become his signature, dropping his Test average to 9.65 after having Sarel Erwee caught in the gully before hitting Zondo’s pad in front of middle stump.
At 27 for four, rescue came from a 98-run partnership between Temba Bavuma and the wicketkeeper, Kyle Verreynne. Despite having reached 40 once in an 11-match career, Verreynne counterattacked with freedom, pulling Green for four and cutting him for six in an over to get started, and repeatedly finding the fence with cuts and glides through the cordon. He made 64, Bavuma tapping singles to play the supporting hand with 38.
Starc broke the union after lunch, swinging on to Bavuma’s leg stump via his defensive inside edge. Then it was Nathan Lyon’s turn, taking three wickets in 15 balls without a run against his name. There was prodigious turn and bounce, producing a set of four byes, and helping Lyon have Nortje caught off the glove. Smith’s catch to dismiss Verreynne at slip was his 52nd off Lyon, taking them past Shane Warne and Mark Taylor as Australia’s most prolific bowler-outfielder combination.
Smith also caught Keshav Maharaj for Starc’s 299th Test wicket, but when Starc had Rabada squeeze an inside edge to short-leg, Head juggled and lost the catch. Cummins tidied up Ngidi, the last six wickets going down for 27.
South Africa knew they needed something special to bounce back from that. So far they have produced half of it. The way Head plays, the second morning should be just as lively as the first.