About the time South Africa’s top order crumpled for the third time in as many innings, Jonty Rhodes was asked by Damien Fleming about whether he ever had much chance to watch Shane Warne’s domination of Daryll Cullinan from the other end.
In fact, Rhodes replied in the Seven commentary box, his customary position in the order was immediately after Cullinan’s: Rhodes joked that he stood poised to walk to the middle as the team pondered how Warne would run fresh rings around a player who was otherwise one of their best.
It would be churlish not to forgive Proteas wicketkeeper Kyle Verreynne for having a similar sense of anticipatory readiness this series. He has been given very little reason to take confidence in the batters above him – not that anyone had much confidence in the Gabba’s trampoline pitch.
“I’m a purist, I want to see the game go to four or five days and the way, the nature of it, and how it played with some seriously steep bounce with the old ball, you are on a hiding to nothing as a batting unit,” skipper Dean Elgar had said of Brisbane.
But this time around, the MCG’s surface was not quite so prancing as the Gabba’s last week, nor the Boxing Day deck last year, and a warm, sunny day served also to dry its morning moisture at the same time it drew 64,876 spectators to the ground.
Equally, Australia’s fast men were not immediately at their most precise after Pat Cummins sent the visitors in. Pressure, when imposed, was intermittent, and Elgar, in particular, seemed to be settling in for a long stay, having survived a testy return catch for his opposite number in the first half hour.
In his nuggety style and intent to survive, Elgar had the capacity to play the sort of innings that Ed Cowan once did on debut for Australia against India on a similar surface here in 2011, carving out 69 from 177 balls to set the platform for victory in a low-scoring but engrossing Test match. And how Cowan would have loved to get to Elgar’s mark of more than 5000 Test runs.
So, it was with both surprise and some dismay that spectators witnessed Elgar haring away for a single fewer than 10 minutes before lunch. Possibly timing the ball a little better than he thought, Elgar opened himself up to execution by Marnus Labuschagne – the throw was unerring, and the captain was run out for the first time in his 81 Tests.