The incomparable fast-bowling of Mitch Johnson has inspired Australia to a 281-run thrashing of the world’s number-one Test team, South Africa, on its own turf.
The result, South Africa’s worst loss at home for almost 60 years, gave Australia a one-nil lead in the three-Test series.
Johnson was at his menacing best to push the Proteas to the brink of defeat, taking five second-innings wickets to lift his match tally to a career-best 12-127. Two of those snared on Saturday were thanks to the brilliance of debutant Alex Doolan fielding at short-leg.
The result at Centurion Park was sealed by Nathan Lyon’s run-out of Morne Morkel that dismissed the home team for 200 from 59.4 overs, nowhere near the Test-record 482 it needed to win the match or the 174 overs it needed to face to escape with a draw.
Vice-captain A.B. de Villiers again stood tall in the South African batting line-up, top-scoring with 48, yet when he fell to a combination of Johnson’s bowling and Steve Smith’s sure hands at short cover it extinguished the very, very faint possibility the result would be anything other than a win to Australia.
The physical threat presented by Johnson was reinforced shortly before tea when all-rounder Ryan McLaren bore the brunt of another brutal bouncer from the Australian. The left-hander was unable to evade a bouncer and instead ducked into a ball that clattered into his helmet so hard it could be clearly heard from the open-air media box at the other end of the ground.
Proteas staff ran out onto the ground immediately after seeing him struck on the side of the helmet. It took about five minutes for staff to successfully stem the bleeding created by the blow, which occurred even with him wearing the helmet. Had he not been wearing a helmet the results could have been catastrophic.
Given how astonishing Johnson’s form has been since Australia’s home Ashes series began it was fitting a catch of comparable quality, from Doolan, delivered him the scalp of Graeme Smith that entrenched South Africa’s perilous position. Doolan then produced another dazzling short-leg catch shortly before tea, off Johnson, to remove J.P. Duminy for 10, which exposed McLaren and after him the Proteas’ bowlers.
Set what would be a record Test-record chasing score of 482, or failing that having to survive for almost two entire days, at a sold-out Centurion Park, the Proteas lost both opening batsmen, Alviro Petersen and Smith, within Johnson’s first two overs.
The impact of the early loss of South Africa’s was compounded by Peter Siddle removing Faf du Plessis 15 minutes before lunch, trapped leg-before by a delivery that, ominously, hardly bounced off a good length on a pitch where the cracks are becoming pronounced.
The task South Africa faced in its second innings was mammoth. It had to smash the previous record for the highest successful chase in Tests: the West Indies’ 7-418 against Australia in Antigua in 2002-03.
Australia resumed its innings on day four but only faced 20 deliveries, from which it benefited from two extras. When Shaun Marsh edged Dale Steyn behind for 44, his overnight score, captain Michael Clarke (17 not out) used that as the trigger to declare at 4-290.
Johnson struck with his fifth delivery of the morning when a well-pitched delivery that angled across right-hander Petersen caught his outside edge on the way through to wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, for one, to give Johnson his 250th Test wicket.
The manner of the Proteas’ next dismissal, of Graeme Smith, demonstrated the chasm in fielding quality between Australia and South Africa in this Test. While the Proteas dropped three catches on day two, with only one of them excusable because of the degree of difficulty, the chance accepted by debutant Doolan was far harder than even the one-handed chances spilled by Hashim Amla and Graeme Smith so far in the Test.
As Johnson angled a full delivery into Graeme Smith the Proteas captain clipped it solidly off his pads, where Doolan claimed a magnificent reflex catch at short-leg that sent his Australian team mates into delirium. Left-hander Smith struck the ball sweetly but it flew directly into the hands of the Tasmanian, whose reaction in accepting the chance was matched by how quickly he threw the ball in the air to leave the crowd stunned.
In addition to the quality of Doolan’s catch, captain Clarke also deserved credit for placing Doolan in a slightly unorthodox position just behind the crease, as does Johnson for bowling to a plan that delivered him his ninth wicket for the match.
The wicket of defence-focused du Plessis for 18 from 47 balls before the break, to his near number-four batsman’s near-unplayable delivery for the match, brought groans from around pro-Proteas spectators, even though it brought the brilliant de Villiers to the crease.
South Africa’s only encouragement from its batting in the first session was the form of Amla, who looked rock-solid in the 48 deliveries he faced before lunch, which included four superb boundaries. But, just like in the first innings when he looked similarly impressive, the world’s number-two Test batsmen departed for a middling score, 35. In the second innings it came from a rare instance where he lacked judgement, attempting to play at a Ryan Harris delivery close to his body that he edged to Shaun Marsh at first slip, to end 48-run partnership with de Villiers.
After the loss of that fourth wicket the focus of de Villiers and new partner Duminy turned to survival. This was evident in the home team scoring only 31 runs across the first 16 overs of their partnership.
The partnership was broken when left-hander Duminy turned Johnson off his pads with good timing, just as fellow left-hander Graeme Smith had - and to the same result. Doolan thrust both hands to his left, where he somehow managed to guide the ball onto his chest where he clasped it conclusively.
When McLaren was struck by Johnson it evoked memories of what de Villiers had said at the preceding night’s press conference, that he and his team mates had to put their bodies on the line against the left-armer.
“You can’t show weakness . . . you’ve got to be prepared to get hurt,” he said.
McLaren impressively got right in behind the next delivery, the last he faced before tea. Sadly it was to little avail as he faced only another three deliveries after the break as he attempted to block a shoulder-bound bouncer from Johnson and edged behind for six. While his loss was a blow to the Proteas’ hopes of survival it was incomparable to the effect of losing de Villiers for 48 in Johnson’s next over. With the latter the end was unquestionably nigh.
Siddle then pushed the Proteas to defeat by uprooting Robin Peterson’s middle stump for 15, with Steyn following for three soon after. Philander’s late cameo produced 26 runs from just 18 balls, before he was left stranded by the run-out of Morkel.
Australia (Ist innings) 397
South Africa (Ist innings) 206
Australia (2nd innings - overnight 3-288)
C. Rogers b Steyn 1
D. Warner c Smith b Peterson 115
A. Doolan c De Villiers b Duminy 89
S. Marsh c De Villiers b Steyn 44
M. Clarke not out 17
Sundries (b3, lb14, w7) 24
Total (4 wkts - decl) 290
Fall of wickets: 1-1 (Rogers), 2-206 (Warner), 3-243 (Doolan)
Bowling: Philander 11-2-28-0, Steyn 14.2-2-61-2 (1w), McLaren 11-0-47-0 (1w), Morkel 13-4-38-0, Peterson 19-1-87-1 (5w), Duminy 4-0-12-1
South Africa (2nd Innings)
A PETERSEN c Haddin b Johnson 1
G SMITH c Doolan b Johnson 4
H AMLA c Marsh b Harris 35
F DU PLESSIS lbw b Siddle 18
AB de VILLIERS c Smith b Johnson 48
J DUMINY c Doolan b Johnson 10
R MCLAREN c Haddin b Johnson 6
R PETERSON b Siddle 21
V PHILANDER not out 26
D STEYN c Clarke b Harris 3
M MORKEL run out (Lyon) 1
Sundries (10b 5lb 11w 1nb) 27
Fall of wickets: 6 (Petersen), 12 (Smith), 49 (du Plessis), 97 (Amla), 128 (Duminy), 140 (McLaren), 151 (de Villiers), 165 (Peterson), 178 (Steyn), 200 (Morkel).
Bowling: R Harris 12.4-5-35-2, M Johnson 16-3-59-5 (2w/10 1nb), P Siddle 16-6-55-2, D Warner 2-0-3-0, N Lyon 13-1-33-0.