It felt like a great day one. The home side tucked in on an inviting track. The depleted visiting pace division raced in hard, fighting back whenever times were getting tough. A young opener, Aiden Markram, stroked another graceful century. A veteran seamer, Chadd Sayers, finally won his debut and collected his first wickets. The Bullring crowd lived up to their reputation. Pat Cummins got on a hat-trick, picking up the local captain, Faf du Plessis, first ball. It was a day that demanded attention.
Yet such is the predicament Australian cricket finds itself in that all eyes will quickly return to Sydney overnight when David Warner fronts the cameras to have his say about what happened in Newlands. Unlike his fellow members of the Sandpaper Three – Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft – the opener and former vice-captain did not answer questions on landing in the country. He wanted to “take a deep breath” first. First time for everything.
But the 11 players in the middle of the Wanderers could not control any of that. What they could influence was the way they conducted themselves. The standards this Australian team have kept are on trial and will be for a long time yet. So what the team did was set a standard in the field that belied any suggestion that they are going to roll over in this fixture inside three days in order to get an early flight home. It was impressive.
Take Matt Renshaw, the opener who flew into the country two days ago. If he is not carrying a brutal bout of jetlag, then he is the first ever to complete that journey and not. The Queenslander was one of three men who made that midweek hike and four changes to the team humiliated in Cape Town. Diving around in the gully he stopped everything and at cover too. Later, it was a full-commitment, full-length dive to save just one run when sweeping at deep point that said even more.
He was backing up the graft of the bowlers, of whom Cummins was again the standout. When the world was falling in last Sunday morning, he was the one that did not wilt. On the first evening of that match, eight days ago on the calendar but probably only a couple of actual night’s sleep ago for the strung-out tourists, he ran amok with the old ball. Here it was not quite as dramatic but the exertion – off practically no practice between Tests – was the same.
With Markram beyond 150 and looking better by the moment and AB de Villiers, the most capable of partners, getting busy, they came close to bursting the final session open and finishing two down. Instead Cummins, at last, drew a false stroke from Markram, worthy reward for such consistent output. When Du Plessis inexplicably shouldered arms next delivery to a searing inswinger, it was two in two balls and the Australians were back in business.
At stumps the new captain, Tim Paine, had a message for the world, that his era in charge would be underpinned by respect. To start on the right foot, after the national anthems were sung he arranged with Du Plessis that the sides would shake hands, an idea he picked up watching football in his hotel room. To Paine it is a small but important gesture he wants to implement at the start of each series he oversees.
“We’ve got to be more respectful of our opposition and we’ve got to be more respectful of the game of cricket,” he said in a revealing exchange. “We’ve tended to push the boundaries as far as we possibly could. I think that we’ve seen that people probably don’t like that, so it’s time for us to change.”
Paine added that a humbler approach would suit the group he now oversees. “We’re a different group of players than Australia have had for a long time. We haven’t got too many guys that like to verbalise and have that sort of really hard-nosed Australian approach. We’re about creating an environment where guys can come in and play cricket and just be themselves. I think if we can achieve that then we’ll have guys having better results.”
Nobody will be getting carried away after one committed day at the grindstone and a few encouraging words – culture takes time to embed, both good and bad. But after the week that was, this might just be when they finally started getting it back on track and might just carry more weight than anything Warner says.