Australia’s captain Tim Paine has pointed to his side’s mauling in Johannesburg – their second heaviest of all time – as a harsh reminder of exactly how much the rest of the team will have to step up without the batting skills of Steven Smith and David Warner for at least the next 12 months.
Even after accounting for the emotional turmoil of the past week, and the extraordinarily rough preparation saved for Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns, who flew in from Australia to South Africa with only 36 hours between landing and playing, their performance on the final morning at Wanderers was ignoble in the extreme. The whole thing took just 16.4 overs, the biggest partnership worth 19 between the last pair of Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon.
It was the capstone on a series where Australia’s batting utterly failed to cope with the pressure imposed by South Africa. This was the second series in succession against South Africa that they suffered a similar fate. In each instance, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj were central to proceedings.
This time, they dominated so much that Australia went through the entire series without a single three-figure partnership. Techniques and minds were all over the place on the final day on Tuesday, ensuring there was plenty for the Australians to ponder in terms of performance as well as culture.
“I think the performance was still concerning, no doubt about that. As we’ve spoken about so much, we had a really tough week. But from the Durban Test match if we’re completely honest, South Africa just outplayed us purely on skill,” Paine said. “Maybe today and this Test match, you can take what you like about our performance, but there is certainly some areas of concern.
“But we’ve also got some guys here who have played some very good cricket at an international level for a long time who will need to step up again now that we’ve lost two of the best players in the world. A lot of us have got to step up and take the slack. I think Australia has got the talent. We’ve just got to be able to harness it properly. If we do I think we’ll be okay.”
Apart from the injured Mitchell Starc, this was more or less the best XI Australia could have chosen when shorn of Smith, Warner and Cameron Bancroft. Glenn Maxwell flew into Johannesburg alongside Renshaw and Burns, while other players back home likely to figure in discussions will include Travis Head and Kurtis Patterson. The cupboard is far from fully stocked.
Equally there will be questions around Australia’s support staff in addition to the change from Darren Lehmann to a new coach, with the likes of Justin Langer and Jason Gillespie considered the frontrunners. The fielding coach, Brad Haddin, has been discussed as a possible option for the now vacant New South Wales job, while the assistant coach David Saker and the batting coach Graeme Hick will also be looked at. Overseeing it all is the team performance manager Pat Howard, who will doubtless be a key interviewee in the “culture review” being planned by the Cricket Australia Board.
Whoever is chosen, they will become part of the cultural shift articulated by Paine from the moment he took over from Smith midway through the Newlands Test. South Africa’s players noted universally how different the Australian team had been to play against in Johannesburg, with the opening batsman Dean Elgar going as far as to say the match was the most “docile” encounter with the men in the baggy greens he had ever participated in.
South Africa captain Faf du Plessis said it remained to be seen how Australia could sustain the attitude of change from a deeply ingrained way of playing and behaving, particularly if the wins did not arrive.
“Obvious this Test match had a different feel to it, there was not as [much] competitiveness and other stuff as the other Test matches before it,” he said. “It’s something we can only talk about in time, how it will change and what sort of things will happen, how it will happen. I don’t like to really comment on stuff not in my control. Their culture is something they’ve spoken about that they would like to change, and that’s good that they believe … if they’ve said it it means it needs to change. Time will tell what sort of effect that will have on their dressing room.”
For Paine, the process of evolution has already begun. “I think it was probably evident in this match that we’d changed somewhat. That will continue to happen,” he said. “We’ve obviously got a new coach coming in at some stage who would have huge say on how that is. But from my point of view we’ve now got a fine line between being really respectful of opposition and the game and also being at a level that is really competitive as you should be in Test match cricket.
“It’s going to be a different style to what a lot of the guys have been used to but I think we’ll find it pretty quickly. As I said once the new coach comes in and lays down the way he wants us to play as well, has his say on it, I think we’ll go for it straight away. I suppose the positive for us is that we really do potentially, in the next series, have a clean slate.
“We’ve got to learn our lessons from this series and where we can improve, and if guys aren’t already thinking about that I’d be surprised. It’s an exciting time. We’ll have a new coach, a new brand or culture or whatever you want to call it and guys are going to have a chance to have an input into that. As well as with the guys being out at the moment there are opportunities for guys to step up during that period of Test cricket. It will be good to get home, have a rest and think about it.”
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig
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