Sometimes, though, it’s the same show on repeat, with the same actors on the same set, reading the same old script. And so it was at the MCG today – for a while at least.Put to him after he’d lost the toss, his side having been sent in, Dean Elgar said he had always intended to bat. Given how his side performed in the opening Test at the Gabba, you’d be hard-pressed to believe him. All we know for sure is that Pat Cummins, having won the toss, opted to have a bowl, something he’s now done three times – more than any of Tim Paine, Steve Smith, or Ricky Ponting as Test captain of Australia. Initially, there was resistance. Sarel Erwee and Elgar fought, ducked and dived, and got through the earlier threats of the new ball, batting for just over nine overs. It was the longest an opening pair have batted after being put in by Australia since Melbourne 2013, when Alastair Cook and Michael Carberry managed 17 overs against Mitchell Johnson and Co. Australia were far from their best, with only just over a quarter of deliveries in that dangerous channel outside off stump, but South Africa were coping. Until they weren’t.At Brisbane, Erwee fell to a Scott Boland sucker ball, pitched up and wide and inviting the drive; here, it was the same again, failing to learn the lessons of the opening game and paying the price. At Brisbane, Elgar fell to an inelegant strangle down the legside, and it was similarly odd fare here. Nudging to Marnus Labuschagne at cover, the South African skipper shot out the blocks – then straight back to the dressing room. It was Labuschagne’s fourth direct hit run out of 2020: Rory Burns at Hobart, Hasan Ali at Karachi, Babar Azam at Lahore, and now Elgar at Melbourne. The effect of fielding is often exaggerated, in terms of its tangible impact on the scorecard, but Labuschagne is rapidly becoming an exception in the way that only the very fielders can be. Scrapping in the infield to stop balls bursting through, throwing down the stumps when given any opportunity, and taking blinders like we saw to dismiss Khaya Zondo; the Queenslander is a star not only with bat, but with the ball.Theunis de Bruyn, not selected in Brisbane and brought in with a mandate to play his shots, handed Australia a gift. The ball pitched on a nine metre spot, and the South African went for a big cross-batted swipe, the ball flying up in the air and down into the welcome gloves of Alex Carey. It was a case of poor selection followed by poor execution; de Bruyn has never pulled a fuller delivery than this in his Test career, forcing the scoring opportunity from a ball that simply wasn’t the right length. The old adage of playing the ball as it’s bowled can be picked apart however you like, but there’s a simple wisdom there. Before lunch on Day 1, forcing the pace is a luxury, not a right.Even at the time, it felt like a huge missed opportunity. In that morning session, we saw only 16% false shots in the morning session, a touch above the average for all Test cricket – but nothing more. PitchViz suggests that this was the best Day 1, Session 1 pitch for batting that we’ve seen in the last 12 Australia Tests. According to our Expected Wickets model, Australia’s xAverage this morning was 32.9, the worst they have managed in the opening session of a Test since October 2018. A combination of loose lines from the seamers, poor lengths from Nathan Lyon, and a comparative lack of lateral movement, insisted that the hosts were far from consistently threatening. There was control and scoring intent for the visitors, but moments of misjudgment – be it shot selection or run-calling – cost them dear. For a few hours, Kyle Verreynne and Marco Jansen found a rhythm and security at the crease which has been rare for either side in this series, playing with aggression and clarity to put together their biggest partnership of the series. Jansen, in particular, was taking risks, albeit calculated ones. Initially, he was batting almost a metre further out of his crease than his teammates, before getting pushed back by a barrage from Mitchell Starc. He was struck twice by Cummins, first in the grill then later on in the forearm, keen to climb into anything straight and short. Off the spinners, it was a similar story. At the Gabba, Jansen took a huge lusty blow at Lyon, eager to put pressure back on the Aussie attack, and feeling the spinner offered an opportunity to do so. On that occasion he executed the shot poorly and skied the ball, but today he made the same calculation and delivered the goods. Verreynne – South Africa’s most impressive batter on tour so far – was competently in behind, managing the reduced risk of the old ball with aplomb.However, as with all good stories, there’s a main character.And this week it has been Cameron Green. On Friday night, the Western Australian became an IPL millionaire, bought by Mumbai Indians for a princely sum of $3.15 million. Just as South Africa threatened to truly establish themselves back in the contest, back in the series, Green stepped up. The ball to dismiss Verreynne was a classic red ball wicket, a touch of movement from just full of a good length, but it was the second wicket that truly showed his class. The big all-rounder relentlessly bounced Jansen, 24% of his deliveries bowled were genuine bouncers, keen to get into the South African’s grill, disrupting his balance just as Starc had before him. With the left-armer off the field, it was Green’s role to impose himself physically on Jansen, to try and dislodge the final resistance. Bang in short, bang in short, bang in short – sucker ball, full, gone.It was a spell of duel-quality, both a fast-forward to his role in the India tour, and to his increasingly familiar golden-arm. The Verreynne wicket was the latter, a flash of luck that comes your way when you bowl 145 kilometres per hour third-change, but the Jansen wicket is the one of significance.With the India tour on the horizon, and the classic debates surrounding balance zooming into view, Green’s bowling is arguably more significant than his batting. Should he be able to recreate that classical dismissal – enforce, nick off – then Australia can feel far safer in their desire to pick a second spinner and leave out one of the established trio. Green’s bowling has the potential to make the whole attack better, while contributing significantly himself. That was the summation of the day, in truth: two sides looking to the future. One side with an eye to potential greatness and the promise of youth.The other for a time when their batting can rise again.
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