South Africa target greater lower-order efficiency

South Africa’s abilities in the lower order – when batting and bowling – will be their focus ahead of the second Test against Australia, which starts on Friday in Port Elizabeth.

While South Africa lost their last five wickets for 12 runs and 15 runs in their first innings and second respectively at Kingsmead, Australia’s tail was in full flow. The visitors’ last five wickets put on 174 runs in the first innings, enough to create an unbreachable gap between the two sides, and their last five second-innings wickets accumulated 71.

“Our bowlers were really good in the Test,” captain Faf du Plessis said. “Both teams were 160 for 5 in all four innings, so it shows the learning we can take is to be more ruthless with their tail. Once they got through the first seven or eight batters, it was pretty easy [for Australia] to get through our tail.”

So, South Africa are left with a problem in two parts. They need to find more resilience from their lower order and more incisiveness from their bowlers later in the innings, when the ball is old and perhaps reverse-swinging. Australia were able to get the ball to reverse fairly early in both innings and though South Africa also found reverse-swing, they did not do so as potently – especially without Dale Steyn in their ranks.

“There was a real difference in the skill with the reverse-swinging ball,” du Plessis said. “Rabada and Starc were the two standouts. Every time KG [Rabada] had the ball in his hand, it looked like he could take a wicket, and the same with Starc. One bowler in each team has got the potential to do that to the tail. Dale is very deadly with the reverse-swinging ball, but he’s not available right now so we need to find ways with the guys that we have to eliminate the tail a lot quicker. The only weapon we have in the team right now who does that is Kagiso.”

Steyn, who is recovering from a heel injury sustained during the New Year’s Test against India, could come into contention for the third Test against Australia, but will need to play at least one domestic first-class match before then. He will have an opportunity – a round of three-day provincial matches starts later this week and a round of franchise games next week – but South Africa have no guarantees of when he will be back. He is certain not to play in Port Elizabeth, where a searing reverse-swinging spell helped South Africa beat Australia in 2014 to level the series 1-1, so the hosts will have to find another way. “The tail is going to have to scrap, and the top seven or eight batters will have to take responsibility,” du Plessis said.

South Africa’s senior batsmen, specifically Hashim Amla and du Plessis, are under the microscope after scores of 8 and 0, and 15 and 4 respectively. There will also be some pressure on Dean Elgar, who scored 16 runs in the Test, and AB de Villiers, whose first-innings 71 was overshadowed by a needless run-out at the non-striker’s end in the second. All these batsmen are thought to be entering the twilight or, in Elgar’s case, the latter half of their careers. And one of the reasons they have not faced more serious consequences for their lack of consistency, which has stretched back to the England tour last year, is because it appeared that there were no possible replacements. But now, after the younger crop came good in the Durban Test, South Africa have evidence of depth.

Aiden Markram was the star with a magnificent century in difficult circumstances, helping ease concerns about who could be the flagbearer in the post du Plessis-de Villiers-Amla era. “It was a brilliant knock,” du Plessis said. “He went through a tough stage against India. The run-out between him and AB would have been weighing on his mind. Australia were trying to make sure that was something weighing on his shoulders. To get through that says a lot about the guy.”

Theunis de Bruyn, who took on Starc and made a fighting 36, and Quinton de Kock, who hit form with 83, also made strong statements. Their contributions helped drag South Africa into a fifth day in Durban and gave them a morale boost ahead of the second Test. “I’m really proud of the character. Most teams, when you get into a position of strength like that, the team rocks up on day four and you bully them [the opposition] all day,” du Plessis said. “It was great to see the fight from our bowlers too. We didn’t make a great start with the bat, but it was great to see the character from the young guys. That will do them well for the series.”

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