Aiden Markram scored a career-defining 143, while Theunis de Bruyn first and Quinton de Kock after that played their parts well, but South Africa were staring down the barrel at 293/9 in their second innings, still 123 runs behind Australia with one wicket in hand by the end of the fourth day of their first Test, at Kingsmead in Durban.
South Africa began their second innings on Sunday, 4 March, 416 runs in arrears, and it didn’t help their cause that Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis were all gone for single-digit scores. At that stage, South Africa were 49/4 and the Test looked headed for an early finish. But Markram stitched together partnerships of 87 with de Bruyn and 127 with de Kock to keep the team’s hopes alive. By the end of the day’s play, though, Australia were back on top even with de Kock closing in on a fourth Test century, unbeaten on 81.
“Obviously the losing of regular wickets up front was to me the most challenging bit to deal with,” said Markram, the opener, after the day’s play. “The ball, how it was spinning out of the rough … Nathan Lyon’s a quality spinner and I knew he was going to be hard to face, so quite a few things, the day in itself was a tough day.”
Outside of Markram, de Bruyn and de Kock, none of the South African batsmen reached double-figures, suggesting it was tough get in on the pitch. “It was the sort of wicket where once you got in you could develop a plan,” agreed Markram.
Wickets fell in clutches, but the one that could have been avoided, possibly, was that of de Villiers. The best of the South African batsmen in the first innings with an unbeaten 71 came in at 39/2 and left at the same total after a misunderstanding with Markram that left him stranded even as David Warner fired in a throw for Lyon to break the stumps.
A great day today, 9 down and 1 to go. Well bowled @mstarc56 and to our bowlers for grinding it out. A very good 💯 by Markram 👏— David Warner (@davidwarner31) March 4, 2018
“It happened really quickly. David Warner is one of the best fielders in the world and as soon as I saw it I didn't think there was a run. It was very unfortunate. It wasn't nice to be at the other end watching AB being run out,” said Markram, who appeared not to respond even as his partner charged down the pitch for the single.
Though his team was in trouble, Markram was happy with his own performance with the bat. “It definitely does give us confidence,” he said. “It's a long series and every innings is vitally important in the context of the series. We would liked to have done it better in the first dig, especially with the bat, but we showed a lot of fight today.”
Markram’s innings ended when Tim Paine pulled off a great catch behind the stumps. With Mitchell Marsh bowling, Paine came up to the stumps, and as Markram tried to guide one down to third man, Paine held on.
“I've tried it a few times on flattish wickets. There was a bit of reverse swing so if we're honest, we were going to try and trap him on the crease and get him lbw. But, as you saw, it bounced a bit more and got an outside edge, so very grateful it stuck,” said Paine. “I think it's always a chance when you're up to the stumps. It certainly mixes the batsmen's feet up a little bit and makes them play in a certain, different way.”
It was one of the highlights of the day’s play, and Paine said that Quinton de Kock standing up to Vernon Philander – like in the Test series against India – had helped him make up his mind.
“We saw South Africa do it a lot with Vernon – guys who can hit a really nice length, get the keeper up to the stumps. It's just a different scenario for a batter to deal with. It worked well,” explained Paine.
The wicket at that stage, with Markram and de Kock raising thoughts of a remarkable comeback, made a big difference, but Paine played it down. “I wouldn't say they were starting to get away from us, they were playing very well, but we knew we had a new ball around the corner and we know what our attack can do when we start to get it at the tail,” he explained.
“So we knew we were one wicket away and we were right in the contest. But from a wicket-keeping point of view, that's what I try and do: I try and change the game. So just needed to come up to the stumps to try and do something different and it was great that it stuck in there.”
Once the Marsh and Paine combination had brought the game back in Australia’s favour, Mitchell Starc waded in to the fray and picked up three wickets in one over before fading light forced the players off the field.
“It was just getting darker and darker so even the spinners were becoming a little bit harder to see,” said Paine. “It's got to be fair for the batters. It was great they gave us the chance with the spin but the umpires were constantly checking the light and it was just getting to the stage where it was just too dark.
“He (Starc) gets a chance tomorrow now. We'll come in early tomorrow, do another warm-up and see what happens. Obviously the state of the game tonight we thought we'd have a crack at getting that last wicket.”
That will happen on the fifth morning, and if Starc gets it, it will give him twin five-fors for the Test – he already has 4/74 in the second innings to go with his 5/34 from the first.