Baggy Greens Pummel Proteas into Disarray
Harare ‑ The Proteas have stood proudly, on top of the world of Test cricket, but after being bloodied and ripped apart by the hostility of an inspired Mitchell Johnson, South Africa’s proud five-year unbeaten run in a Test series is seriously under threat.
Aussie speedster, Johnson, produced one of the greatest fast-bowling performances of all-time at Centurion as the Baggy Greens intimidated and humbled the Proteas, making a mockery of their number of position in the world, en-route to a 281-run victory in the first Test.
Johnson had served prior notice when he destroyed England in the Ashes, taking 37 wickets, as Australia galloped to a 5-0 whitewash victory on home soil, leaving the visitors in disarray with their Zimbabwean coach Andy Flower being removed while South Africa-born batsman, Kevin Pietersen’s international future for his adopted nation was brought to an end.
The 32-year-old Johnson, who gave up cricket three years ago saying he had lost the appetite for the game, has reinvented himself since his return, pushing the boundaries of pace and aggression, and his 12 wickets against South Africa was the best performance by an Australian bowler, in terms of wickets taken, since Bruce Reid in 1991.
The Proteas just couldn’t cope with him and were bowled out for 206 and 200, their sorry innings on both occasions being put into context by the fact that the reliable AB de Villiers scored 91 in the first innings, almost half his team’s total, and then top-scored with 48 in the second innings.
But this showdown was never meant to produce such a lop-sided contest.
Conventional wisdom pointed to a balanced and bruising contest, with the hosts holding the edge, and their skipper, Graeme Smith, had a spring in his step, going into the Centurion battle, and confidence in his voice.
“If you are the number one team in the world you have to be favourites,” Smith told reporters on the eve of the first Test.
“It's something we have become accustomed to and we've become very comfortable with it.
“We've been number one in the world for a period of time and travelled to some tough places to firstly get it, and to defend it.”
The Proteas took over as the number one team on the ICC Test rankings in August 2012 and, two years down the line, they are still holding on to that privileged position.
They have had the arsenal and vice-captain De Villiers, who stood alone among the ruins after the four days of the first Test dominated, in ruthless fashion, by the Aussies, came into this contest as the top-ranked Test batsman in the world.
The consistent Hashim Amla, one of the best batsmen of his generation, was sitting in fourth position while in Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn, the Proteas had the number one and number two bowlers on the ICC Test bowling rankings.
“It's not just one or two people. Hashim and AB have done really well and scored big runs of late, but everyone's contributed when needed which is exciting,” Smith said in the countdown to the Centurion showdown.
“Our guys' records over the last few seasons have been really good. Our partnerships have been impressive.”
But all that was destroyed by the pace and accuracy of Johnson, bowling at the very peak of his athletic powers, and Amla was hit on the grille of his helmet, in the first ball that he faced in the second innings, with the impact of the ball twisting part of that protective hat.
Ryan McLaren was hit by an accurate bouncer from Johnson, which he couldn’t evade in time, the bar crashing onto the side of his head and, as he bled on the crease, we were given a reminder of how brutal this gentleman’s game can become at times.
Philander’s bat was broken, by another searing delivery from Johnson and, suddenly, we appeared to be have been taken back to 2009 when the same bowler sent Smith and the now retired Jacques Kallis to hospital.
Such has been Johnson's impact that former Australian speedster Shaun Tait believes he is the greatest fast bowler of his generation.
“Obviously, the South Africans are not going to say they are scared but they are,” Tait, who played franchise cricket in Zimbabwe, told the Daily Telegraph.
“You could ask the best players that have played and there is no way they want to go out and face Mitchell Johnson.
“Obviously, there’s some pretty hostile spells he has come out with again. He is on at the moment, dangerous, the best bowler in the world.
“He probably already is the best of his generation, he won the Ashes single-handedly, which was a great effort. All the cricketers around know how good a bowler he is.”
The Proteas, though down, are not out of this contest and will need to fight back, in the next Two Tests, in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town to avoid a first Test series loss in five years.
They have done it before and memories are still fresh of that Test match in November 2011 when South Africa bowled out for 47, the lowest Test innings by the Baggy Greens in 109 years, and many host commentators know that, if Smith and his men can hit their stride, they can be more than a match for the visitors.