Star performances see Australia outshine South Africa and take control of first Test

Star performances see Australia outshine South Africa and take control of first Test

As Australia soared to the ascendancy on the second day of the first Test at Durban, it wasn't a matter of one star performance. This was a constellation.

Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh and Mitchell Starc would all have been the story of the day had any of their efforts occurred in isolation.

It was a day that began firmly tilted in the home side's favour. It reached parity at lunch, advantage Australia by tea, then South Africa's hopes crashed to the floor in the shadow of stumps.

On a tacky pitch where timing was difficult, Australia's overnight 5 for 225 ballooned to 351. South Africa in reply crashed to 2 for 27, then to 5 for 108, and finally 162 all out.

Lyon started with a shock double strike, then decisively pruned the only partnership threatening to flourish. Marsh played the central hand with the bat, only falling as he searched for a century, having guided Australia to safety.

Starc took most of the headlines as ruthlessly as he took most of the wickets, finishing with five thanks to a timeless display of reverse-swing bowling.

But well before Australia's attack leader did it with the ball, he had produced a swing of momentum with the bat.

Australia battled through most of the first session, batting with as much discipline as the bowling they were facing. Vernon Philander's pitch map looked like a single teenage pimple rather than the usual acne breakout, while Kagiso Rabada combined accuracy and ferocity.

The overnight pair of Marsh and Paine added a dozen runs in seven overs, then Rabada took the new ball. He needed four deliveries to curl one into the edge of Paine's bat and to the keeper.

Pat Cummins was more than happy to play out dot balls in support of Marsh, and Marsh was in no hurry. Across the course of 11 more overs, 14 runs were added.

Several leaves from Cummins just missed off stump. Rabada put down a tough return chance from Marsh's drive. There was frustration in the air when Cummins finally missed the left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj, but the partnership hadn't hurt on the scoreboard.

Starc did, slapping Morne Morkel for three boundaries from his first five balls. He doubled down with a couple of sixes from Maharaj, and in the twinkling of an eye the score had hit 300 just as Starc was bowled on the stroke of lunch.

A score of 35 might not leap out of the scorebook, but from 25 balls in the context of the match, it had swung the momentum and deflated South Africa.

Marsh came out in a different vein after the break, using support from Lyon to race from 60 to 96 with a range of powerful cuts and straight drives.

His footwork was decisive, whether defending or attacking, and he looked completely at ease at the crease. So much has changed in him as a player, though he professes not to feel markedly different.

Australia's leading wicket takers in Tests

  • 708 SK Warne (145 Tests)
  • 563 GD McGrath (124)
  • 355 DK Lillee (70)
  • 313 MG Johnson (73)
  • 310 B Lee (76)
  • 293 NM Lyon (75)
  • 291 CJ McDermott (71)
  • 259 JN Gillespie (71)
  • 248 R Benaud (63)
  • 246 GD McKenzie (60)

Before Marsh's recent international comeback, he'd faced over 100 balls twice in his Test career, both in his second match in 2014. In his next 19 matches he never managed it again.

Since he returned to this side in Perth, he's done it in each of the four Tests he has played, each one of those a decisive innings in the match. Durban was probably the situation with the most pressure.

The only time Marsh's technique faltered was on 96, when the emotion of the moment led him to slap Philander over mid-on. He may have got away with it had he not taken on Morkel, who stands nearly two metres tall.

Still, a challenge of 351 wasn't disastrous as long as South Africa could produce a decent batting response. It was promising early, with Aiden Markram driving confidently through the covers.

But the early introduction of Lyon in the eighth over proved a masterstroke. With the bounce of a harder ball, Lyon first drew the leading edge of Dean Elgar's bat for a trademark acrobatic caught and bowled, then squeezed a Hashim Amla edge to short leg.

South Africa had 27 on the board. Lyon had equalled, then overtaken, Craig McDermott's 291 Test wickets. Only five Australians sit ahead of him on the all-time list.

The score was 55 when Markram fended a Cummins bouncer to the same catching position for Cameron Bancroft's second snare, another wicket that fell within a minute of a break. After tea, Faf du Plessis kicked off Starc's run of success.

Starc's bowling was laser guided: the left-armer came around the wicket, as wide as possible on the crease, and angled the ball in at the stumps. With reverse swing emerging as early as the 20th over, he then made the ball swerve away late from the right-handers, and sometimes do a bit more off the pitch.

It was, by all conventional standards, unplayable. Where we've become accustomed to seeing Starc use this wide angle to detonate tailenders' stumps, now he was using it to get proper batsmen to edge behind.

South Africa's captain was roasted for 15, number six all-rounder Theunis de Bruyn for 6, and Philander for 8.

Between times, Lyon picked up his third by coming around the wicket to Quinton de Kock, extracting significant turn to straighten the ball past a defensive stroke and knock down off stump. Yet another left-hander was added to Lyon's growing collection.

Josh Hazlewood sent more stumps flying to get rid of Maharaj, before Starc came back over the wicket to clean up left-handers Rabada and Morkel. South Africa's last four wickets had gone down in 16 balls, three of them to Starc.

That left AB de Villiers high and dry on 71 not out, having swung between control and counterattack as the afternoon had worn on. If de Villiers is weighing up his future in whites, you could hardly blame him.

He'll emerge tomorrow with his team trailing by 189 runs on the first innings, with the prospect of another three sessions in the field before being presented with another fourth-innings Mission Impossible.

But for him to cancel out what Marsh produced, he'll first need someone else to equal Lyon and then Starc. It's not often that three such performances occur on the same day.