AUSTRALIA TOUR OF SA, 2018
Morne Morkel became the fifth South African bowler to take 300 Test wickets. © Getty
Another day, another off-field distraction. But luckily for the third Test between South Africa and Australia, the on-field action was once again compelling enough to hold everyone’s focus, particularly as it featured a major landmark for a local hero.
Morne Morkel is not from this part of the country, but some of his best spells have come here and there was no shortage of support as he became just the fifth South African bowler to reach 300 Test wickets. In Port Elizabeth, Lungi Ngidi’s form brought into question whether Morkel’s retirement series might have been over after one game. But on Friday (March 23) he had the ball back in his hand and his 4 for 87 was the highlight of the day as South Africa took control of the Test match.
Australia closed on 245 for 9 when bad light stopped play prematurely, trailing by 66, with a fighting partnership of 66 for the ninth wicket between Tim Paine and Nathan Lyon having clawed them out of a hole at 175 for 8. South Africa dropped Lyon three times in his bolshy innings of 47, and were once again being frustrated by Paine, who finished unbeaten on 33. It took an excellent catch from the other man of the hour, Dean Elgar, to break the stand and give Morkel his fourth wicket.
The pair’s performance extolled the better virtues of South Africans on a day when a handful of the 10,095 Newlands fans were evicted from the ground. First David Warner was subjected to a verbal encounter that stopped him dead in his tracks as he walked up the stairs in the wake of his dismissal, and a group of spectators were later removed for singing inappropriate comments about Warner and his wife. As hard as the players on both sides try to remove themselves from unnecessary drama, controversy continues to shroud the series.
Such off-field distractions felt needless and disappointing on such a pivotal day of action. South Africa’s advantage was aided on the second morning by the stand between Elgar and Kagiso Rabada, which was extended to 50. Rabada continues to look a more capable batsman than his position at No 10 might suggest, while Elgar maintained his unusual fluency from the first day. That included the sight of the left-hander hitting Josh Hazlewood back over his head for a one-bounce four to bring up the fifty stand.
Like anyone watching, Steve Smith had to remove his sunglasses and rub his eyes to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. But in the next over he introduced Lyon, and the offspinner’s very first delivery drew an edge from Rabada that was snaffled by Smith at slip. Lyon wrapped up the innings later in the over when he induced the same dismissal from Morne Morkel, leaving Elgar to walk off to a standing ovation. Having carried his bat for the third time in a Test, he joined Desmond Haynes in the club of batsmen to have achieved the feat most often.
A total of 311 looked about par, then suddenly short of it when Warner raced out of the blocks. In the latest edition of his duel with Rabada, the left-hander seemed intent on hitting every ball to the boundary. When he succeeded on five consecutive occasions to race to 30 in 14 deliveries, his day looked to have arrived. But with the next ball Rabada hit the top of off-stump with such precision that it was sent cartwheeling towards the dressing rooms. As it happened, Warner needed the intervention of security after a spectator confronted him on his way back to Australia’s.
The interaction raised the tension around the stadium, and it was fuelled further by a fiery spell from Rabada and then Morkel that brought its fair share of body blows and two crucial wickets. First Morkel had Usman Khawaja caught at fine leg, then he moved to 299 dismissals when a softened-up Steve Smith fended to Elgar at gully.
Focus shifted to the 300th, but the crowd were made to wait as Cameron Bancroft and Shaun Marsh held South Africa off for 20 overs, adding 78 runs in the process. But as Tea neared, Morkel returned to spark another collapse as he had Marsh caught behind for 26, wafting a wide one. The moment was celebrated not as a numerical landmark but as the culmination of a fine career that is drawing to a close. Morkel would later prove that he is not done yet by breaking the late stand, but first Vernon Philander and Rabada made use of the reversing ball to snaffle two wickets apiece as Australia lost five wickets for 25 runs in 18 overs.
Lyon’s fun knockabout reduced the damage, but South Africa can still move forward knowing that they hold the high ground on the pitch, even if their fans did them no favours off of it.
Brief scores: South Africa 311 (Dean Elgar 141*, AB de Villiers 64; Pat Cummins 4-78) lead Australia 245/9 (Cameron Bancroft 77; Morne Morkel 4-87, Kagiso Rabada 3-81) by 66 runs.