Day two of the Boxing Day Test was all about David Warner.
The veteran opener scored an unbeaten double-century against South Africa in front of 42,614 spectators at the MCG to silence his doubters and steer Australia towards a commanding position at stumps.
Warner become the second cricketer to reach 200 in their centenary Test, joining former England captain Joe Root.
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Australia is 3-386 at stumps on day two, leading by 197 runs in the first innings. But the hosts were plagued by injury on Tuesday, with Cameron Green, Mitchell Starc and Warner each needing medical attention.
TOUGH TIMES FOR PROTEAS AFTER ‘SOUL-DESTROYING’ DROPS, PUZZLING CALLS
The series was on the line heading into day two. South Africa needed to bowl Australia out before stumps to at least keep its chances of claiming victory at the MCG alive.
By day’s end, the second Test – and the series – was surely gone.
Australia’s two primary batters on Tuesday regained ominous form and piled on the pain for the Proteas, who were sapped of all energy and hope during a hot, unforgiving Melbourne day.
“It’s a tough one. We‘ve seen it so many times with touring teams here to Australia,” former England bowler Isa Guha told foxsports.com.au. “They may come here full of belief and anticipation and hope that they can perform against this Australian team, but you’ve lost a Test inside two days and now this Test … very often the wheels can come off – as we’ve seen in Ashes series in the past.
“I still think South Africa have got an incredible bowling attack, who haven‘t quite performed as well as they would’ve liked in this Test match, certainly at key moments in the game as a unit. There have been brief moments and spells of brilliance, but it hasn’t been consistent enough.”
Frustratingly, it was not a case of South Africa’s bowling attack looking flat. Anrich Nortje’s fiery post-lunch spell was breathtaking, while Marco Jansen at times had the ball dangerously swinging both ways.
But the highlights for the Proteas were few and far between as they struggled to capitalise on their opportunities, while some puzzling decisions around bowler choices seemed costly.
For instance, spinner Keshav Maharaj partnered Nortje after lunch. But while a fiery Nortje had David Warner in a defensive mindset, Steve Smith and Warner kept the scoreboard ticking over at the other end against Maharaj, who didn‘t look threatening. Could Jansen or Kagiso Rabada have partnered Nortje at the start of the second session?
It comes after skipper Dean Elgar’s decision to bowl Nortje for just one of the 12 overs in the tricky one-hour period before stumps on day one – a period in which the Aussies had nothing to gain and everything to lose.
Wicketkeeper Kyle Verreynne, a day after his gritty 52, also had a moment to forget on day two with the gloves, dropping Smith when he was just nine off Jansen’s bowling. Former Kiwi keeper Ian Smith told Fox Cricket that dropped chances when the batting team is on top are “soul-destroying” for a bowler.
The Proteas’ tough second day comes after another poor outing with the bat.
Their first dig total of 189 was the ninth consecutive innings in which South Africa had been bowled out for less than 200.
Aussie legend Michael Hussey said batting remained South Africa’s “Achilles heel”, while Mark Waugh added low scores had “been the story of their batting for 12 to 15 months”.
“They’d be well aware of it and the more you think about it, sometimes the tougher it gets. But it could well be just that’s their level and there’s a difference in class between some players – it’s as simple as that,” Waugh told Fox Cricket.
With one and a half Tests to go, the outlook appears grim for the tourists.
But Guha can see the Proteas being competitive on the SCG pitch.
“The next Test at the SCG, will they play two spinners? That will be a question,” she said.
“Finishing at the SCG, which is a very good batting deck and probably isn‘t as intimidating like the Gabba and the MCG with Australia’s pace attack.
“There‘s still the possibility that they can come out with a winning finish.”
SMITH’S ‘BATTING PERFECTION’ DURING LATEST MCG FEAT
Steve Smith hates getting out.
And he really hated getting out on Tuesday, for he knew a big, historic century was there for the taking.
Smith on Tuesday continued his excellent summer, bludgeoning his way to 85 before he guided a short ball from Anrich Nortje in the air and straight down the throat of Theunis de Bruyn in the gully.
It brought an end to a stunning 239-run third-wicket partnership between Smith and David Warner – and it ended a Smith innings that began unconvincingly but developed into a knock of power.
While the runs flowed for Warner early, Smith struggled early for rhythm at the crease. He played and missed lots, particularly against Marco Jansen, and was dropped by Proteas skipper Kyle Verreynne down the leg-side.
But it seemed once Warner reached triple figures, a burden was also seemingly lifted off Smith’s shoulders. He played with greater fluency after tea, taking a particular liking to Lungi Ngidi’s attempted bouncers by pulling him in front of square.
“Pinpoint perfect,” Aussie legend Adam Gilchrist told Fox Cricket of one Smith pull shot.
“Any young or old cricketer wanting to learn how to play that stroke, that is almost batting perfection.”
“This is all a by-product of the adjustments he made during the West Indies series, getting these strokes hit well in front of square and allowing him to get more power through wrist position
“Stance is where it all changed, just getting his stance right and not having such prodigious back-and-across movement as the bowler releases. It’s been profitable throughout this summer for him.”
Despite falling short of his fifth century at the MCG, Smith’s record at the venue remains mightily impressive.
He became the ninth player to score at least 1000 runs at the MCG – a ground in which he averages 84.75.
“It didn’t feel like he was into the rhythm of his innings in probably his first 50 balls. He played a lot of uncharacteristic and loose shots, he looked a bit more fidgety at the crease … but he finds a way to get through. He always seems to find a gap,” former Aussie batter Mark Waugh said on Fox Cricket.
Michael Hussey added: “He was battling early, but this is the Steve Smith we know. He just finds a way and works his way through.”
AUSSIE RUN-SCORING MACHINE’S GLARING FLAW
Marnus Labuschagne’s summer started with a bang, smacking three consecutive centuries against the West Indies in Perth and Adelaide.
He was seemingly on track for a mountain of runs this season, but the Queenslander hasn’t been able to replicate that form against the South Africans.
After scoring 11 and 5 not out during the Gabba Test, Labuschagne was run out for 14 on day two of the Boxing Day Test, sacrificing his wicket following a cataclysmic mix-up with David Warner.
Labuschagne and Warner ended up at the same end after the latter scampered through for a second tun following an overthrow. Proteas seamer Anrich Nortje retrieved the ball and whipped off the bails, finding Labuschagne inches short of making his ground.
It was the fifth run out of his Test career, the most for any cricketer since making his international debut in October 2018.
“He’s filthy, both his clothes and probably in his mind,” South African legend Shaun Pollock said on Fox Cricket.
“Warner’s running between the wickets is absolutely brilliant, the intensity that he brings, but you have to have everybody in the team on the same wavelength when they’re running with him.
“It’s difficult to get people on that mindset … We used to have the same problem with Jonty Rhodes.
“Every once in a while you need to remember it’s a cricket match and not an athletics event.
“It’s given South Africa a wicket they so desperately required and given them a little bit of momentum.
“Very unselfish, 100th Test match for David Warner and Labuschagne decided I’ll take the risk, I’ll be the one that might have to scuttle and put the dive in to try and get home.”
Former Australian spinner Kerry O’Keeffe praised Labuschagne for his selflessness, allowing Warner to continue batting in his 100th Test match.
“The most selfless thing we’ve seen in a long time,” O’Keeffe said.
“He realised out of the corner of his eye how committed David was, and David thought about turning back and going to the danger end and Marnus said no I’ll go, despite being completely gone for.
“There has been some freneticism about his running, he’s always looking to turn one into two and he thought there was two immediately, he realised too late that Marnus had overcomitted past the crease.
“Sometimes frenetic running between the wickets, trying to pinch the extra, can undo you and it has there.”
There was conjecture on social media regarding who was to blame for the dismissal, but Labuschagne’s repeated involvement with run outs is becoming cause for concern. He was guilty of running out teammate Mitchell Marsh during an ODI in South Africa in March 2020.
However, Labuschagne’s unreliable running between the wickets remains a minor blemish on an otherwise impeccable international career.
MOST TIMES DISMISSED RUN OUT IN TESTS SINCE OCTOBER 2018
5 – Marnus Labuschagne (AUS)
4 – Babar Azam (PAK)
4 – Joe Root (ENG)
4 – Tim Southee (NZ)
PROTEAS QUICK’S ‘INSPIRING’ SPELL GOES UNREWARDED
The most captivating passage of play on day two of the Boxing Day Test came after the lunch interval.
The mercury was exceeding 35 degrees, and the South Africans were donning white floppy hats, not as a tribute to Shane Warne, but because they needed protection from the scorching sun.
Yet despite the sweltering conditions, Proteas quick Anrich Nortje put together one of the fastest spells of pace bowling witnessed on Australian soil in years.
Nortje repeatedly peppered David Warner with deliveries exceeding 150km/h. A well-directed yorker was dug out by the left-hander before he ducked under searing bouncer that flew over the wicketkeeper’s head for four byes.
In Nortje’s tenth over of the innings, every delivery registered above 150km/h on the speed gun, with two balls touching 155km/h.
“I was down in the stands watching live and Nortje looked unbelievably quick,” former England bowler Isa Guha said on Fox Cricket.
“Blink and you missed it.”
Guha later told foxsports.com.au: “It was a tantalising spell to watch. He was bowling gas.
“But Warner had a clear method and plan to play him. He got a knock on the finger that had to be looked at, but that didn’t deter his determination to score the big one and make it such a magical moment for himself and write his own scripts.”
Freebies were few and far between – nothing veered down the leg side and Nortje rarely offer Warner any width outside off stump.
“What’s hospitality doing down there in the lunchroom? Are they feeding the South Africans something?” Australian wicketkeeper Alyssa Healy joked on Fox Cricket.
“Better have a word to them. They need to start having soup. Send them tomato soup.”
Former Australian gloveman Adam Gilchrist continued: “It’s a fantastic passage of play here. South Africa are bringing to the table everything they would’ve hoped for – and I think everyone in the cricket viewing public would’ve hoped for – to just challenge this Australian line-up … this is inspiring stuff.
“Fantastic effort, energy, commitment from Nortje.”
Warner, who was approaching the nervous nineties, was clearly troubled by the South African’s added speed. In response, he shortened his trademark pick-up meaning there was less power behind his shots.
But the strategy worked, with Warner surviving the onslaught and reaching his 25th Test century after Nortje was taken out of the attack.
Nortje returned in the evening session, removing Steve Smith for 85 with a short delivery that was guided directly towards the gully fielder.
It was just reward for South Africa’s best bowler of the day.
WARNER’S MENTAL FORTITUDE IN CENTENARY TEST
David Warner battled more than just the Proteas bowling attack on Tuesday.
Melbourne’s scorching heat took its toll of the veteran opener, who throughout the day was treated for cramps. Australian support staff brought out plastic chairs for Warner and Steve Smith to sit on during drinks breaks.
While celebrating his double-century with a trademark Toyota jump, Warner’s knee buckled, forcing him off the field with the assistance of teammates and support staff.
After more than seven hours at the crease, he had nothing left to give after a mighty innings.
“Right from ball one, the mindset and the intent was there to score. He went back to what he did so well at the start of his career, which is to take the attack to the bowlers. We‘ve seen the knock-on effect that has had on them as well,” former England bowler Isa Guha told foxsports.com.au.
“It’s testament to him that he still retained that belief that he could still perform at this level when perhaps there might have been some doubts creeping in around the extra quick stuff. He‘s handled it beautifully in this Test and now he’s giving himself the opportunity to dictate when he does eventually retire.
Warner’s summer has been plagued by mounting speculation on his future in the sport, and his 100th Test match was at risk of becoming overshadowed by the white noise.
Following a quartet of low scores against the West Indies in Perth and Adelaide, Warner was dismissed for a golden duck last week’s series opener against South Africa.
As his century drought approached three years, there were genuine concerns he could lose his spot in the starting XI ahead of February’s tour of India. Calls for him to hang up the boots were growing in volume following each failure with the bat.
Warner’s lifetime leadership ban was also proving an unwanted off-field distraction. Cricket Australia had changed its Code of Conduct ahead of the Test summer, allowing the 36-year-old to appeal for his captaincy ban to be overturned.
But frustrated with the process, Warner took aim at CA in a damning statement that was shared to social media on the eve of the Adelaide Test. His manager, James Erskine, created more headlines the following afternoon with some bombshell claims about CA on live radio.
There were also murmurs that Warner was becoming Kagiso Rabada’s bunny, with the South African quick dismissing him in five consecutive knocks.
When Rabada was asked whether he had Warner’s measure last week, he responded: “No comment.”
Despite all the relentless pressure to perform, Warner was adamant runs would come.
“You look at some of the chop-ons and I‘ve been in great positions when I’ve been nicked off,” Warner told reporters on Christmas Eve.
“So there‘s nothing you can actually do about that. That’s what happens in the game of cricket, it ebbs and flows.
“It is about making runs. You‘re never out of form. They’re not the words that I use and they’re definitely not used in our change rooms. It’s about (being) out of runs. And for me, I’ve got those starts but I keep having a little bit of misfortune but at the end of the day it comes around and when it comes around it comes around fast.”
The left-hander’s relief was apparent when he reached triple figures on Tuesday, flicking Rabada to the fine leg boundary before sprinting across the turf and leaping in the air.
Warner saluted the crowd before blowing a kiss to the media box, a not-so-subtle message to the journalists that had written him off.
“I think it‘s testament to his character that he’s been able to play the way he has,” Guha said.
“Someone like a Cameron Green will take a lot from watching him bat and to see how he’s been able to perform given it has been a lean run of form and runs for himself.
“I think the other lesson from the way he‘s been in the team is that, by all accounts, he’s stayed level, he’s stayed exactly the same Davey who’s always been part of the team. He didn’t let it affect his persona within the group and that cheekiness and how he was supporting the bowlers and everyone in the team.”