The least certain selection in the Australia’s squad proved the best of the lot, as Shaun Marsh’s second Test century carried Australia to 297 for 4 on the first day of its first Test against South Africa, and raised questions around Graeme Smith’s decision to field on a Centurion pitch that held no real demons.
The odds on Marsh’s participation in the match had yo-yoed over the past two weeks. An injury led to his name being erased from the squad list, but a swift recovery allowed it to be written back in when Shane Watson was ruled out of the first match. Even then Marsh was not a guaranteed pick with Philip Hughes boasting better four-day form, but the selectors stuck with their initial gut feel and were rewarded with an unbeaten 122.
When Michael Clarke’s folly gifted Dale Steyn his second wicket shortly after lunch, Australia found itself on 98 for 4 and grappling for a foothold. Marsh provided that and was well supported by Steven Smith (91 not out) in an unbroken 199-run partnership for the fifth wicket.
The pair sapped the energy out of a surprisingly flat South Africa’s attack, which granted them the easiest afternoon of batting that any side has enjoyed in South Africa for several seasons.
Although there was a touch of moisture for the bowlers early on, only one of the four dismissals could be attributed to something other than batting error. David Warner chopped on with an ugly slash off Steyn, Alex Doolan (27) pulled Ryan McLaren straight to midwicket, and Clarke (23) leapt into a glaringly obvious trap when he top edged a hook to fine leg.
Only Chris Rogers was forced out, as Morne Morkel forced him to wear a bouncer with his first delivery of the day. When Morkel followed up with a second short ball, Rogers fended to JP Duminy at short leg to avoid a second blow.
Marsh enjoyed a moment of fortune when he was on 12, as a thick edge refused to stick in Hashim Amla’s outstretched hand at gully, and another when McLaren failed to field a Steyn return from the boundary, which could have run the batsman out. That aside, he cruised, and deserved credit for drawing what little sting there was in the South Africa’s attack.
Which wasn’t a great deal. Steyn had woken up with a stomach bug and was jaded throughout the day, his only animation coming with a trademark chainsaw celebration when Clarke was dismissed. An average speed of around 137kph attested to a problem for Steyn, and neither Morkel nor Vernon Philander threatened consistently. On a good pitch, patience was often the missing ingredient.
Steve Smith never once looked troubled, and will go into the second day with a fourth Test century within short reach. Few batsmen have the beach-bum casualness that Steven Smith does when he’s scoring runs, but his loose-limbed approach still thrilled when he sent several deliveries scorching through the covers.
Even the second new ball brought little stress for Steve Smith and Marsh, who pounced on the generous number of poor deliveries as South Africa – at least by its high standards – fell apart. Misfields crept in, the crowd went quiet and the bowlers were picked off.
South Africa has a habit of bouncing back on the second day of a series if it has started poorly, but Marsh and Steven Smith ensured that it will be a long way back to parity.