Before rejoining the Australian team during the third test match of the recently completed Ashes series, Mitchell Marsh struggled with the responsibility of batting in the middle order. If Australia found themselves in a hole, as they did yesterday when Mitch’s brother Shaun fell with the score on 177, the middle order could hardly be relied upon to turn the innings around. Often it was Mitchell Marsh that was held responsible for sparking a collapse. A common gripe among the cricketing fraternity was his inability to dig in when the team required it and contribute with a score of note. His temperament was questioned, and his technique scrutinised, until his weaknesses were laid bare. Australia was, at the time, struggling to score enough first innings runs. Much of this was down to the failings of a fledgeling middle order. The pressure from fans to pursue another option at six soon took hold and Mitch Marsh found himself on the outer with the national team.
On the first day of the first test in this all-important tour, the hit and miss gung-ho merchant of old was nowhere to be seen. Marsh has come to realise there is a far more important quality than bludgeoning the ball to the boundary: patience. With patience comes the ability for a batsman to pick the right ball and minimise risk; a skill that will undoubtedly come in handy against Philander’s guile as the series progresses.
His innings of 32 will not win Australia a test match; he must convert it into triple figures if it is to have any impact. However, we must admire the way in which he kept out Philander, remained confident in his own technique after getting away with a close LBW shout off the bowling of Rabada, and formed a partnership with Paine to see Australia through to the close.
This morning’s first session will decide how many Australia get in their first innings. It will test how much Mitchell Marsh has grown. It will shine a spotlight on what this tour holds in store for Paine. More importantly, it will set the tone for the entire series.
What now for Bancroft?
There comes a time in the career of every opener where they must examine their own technique and identify the flaws. For Bancroft there are many. And the time for reflection is now. England quickly identified a weakness following the first Ashes test at Brisbane. That flaw was exploited during the four test matches that followed and, as is the case in test cricket, other nations have picked up on it.
South Africa went hard at the pads of Bancroft with the new ball as England did throughout the Ashes. The theory is his falling head, perhaps the by-product of his front foot movement, leaves him vulnerable on middle and leg. His bat comes down on a 45-degree angle, as if he is looking to hit the ball through mid-off as soon as it is straight enough, bringing in LBW and bowled as the main modes of dismissal.
Now it is up to Bancroft to address these technical deficiencies – no easy task given they are based in muscle memory – before the selectors swing their axe. You feel that, because Australia has opted not to bring another opening batsmen on tour, he will be given a few tests to find his feet. If not, Renshaw – who has returned to form with hundreds in Shield cricket against Victoria and South Australia – will be first in line to take his place.
There is a lot to be said about the great swing bowlers of the modern era. I wonder whether Philander will ever figure in this conversation. As it stands he has 188 test wickets at 21. Hardly the stuff of legends.
There is a lot of catching up to do to join the likes of Anderson, McGrath and others at the top of the wicket-takers tree. In many ways, though, Philander has a bigger role to play than many of those who have taken over 300 test wickets bowling at just over 130 kilometres.
When Kyle Abbott, another superb swing bowler in his own right, parted ways with South Africa to join Hampshire on a Kolpak deal, South Africa were left with a gaping hole in their bowling stocks that was also missing an injured Dale Steyn. At this point, Philander’s importance in the future of the South African side grew significantly. Not until the last year and a bit, though, has he truly come into his own. Last time South Africa toured Australia all the talk was about Rabada and his lightning-fast arm action; Philander barely rated a mention. That was until he visited Hobart, swing bowling paradise, and tore through the Australians. Since then he has been the main focus of every touring side.
Last night, when bowling to David Warner during the first session of play, he honed in on a length with military precision, consistently hitting the stickers of Warner’s blade. This wasn’t a pitch ideal for someone of Philander’s pace. Yet he made it work, eventually grabbing Warner’s wicket on the stroke of lunch. What was most impressive was not the delivery that found Warner’s edge – an eye-catching moment in its own right, mind you – but the set-up. This is one of Philander’s greatest qualities and why he will soon be given the credit he is due.