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Thursday, 10 November 2011

61-18 since lunch

Every now and again, a football scoreline can described as being "like a rugby score." Earlier this season, Martin Tyler used these very words during Manchester United's annihilation of Arsenal.

At the time of writing, Australia are 21-9, 14 runs shy of their lowest score in Test cricket. This in itself is ridiculous. The fact they started the day at 214-8, and that South Africa were 49-1 compounds the lunacy. Robin Jackman, struggling to maintain his composure, announced as Australia's 9th wicket went down that the game figures were 61-18 since lunch - This, I think we will all agree, is a Rugby score. Australia vs Fiji kind of Rugby score, but a Rugby score none-the-less.

The Test to this point has had everything. At the lunch break, Robert Key was eulagising about the quality displayed during Michael Clarke's 157. There were comparisons to Atherton's great 185* in the same country and it was certainly Clarke's best innings against a fiery and accurate Dale Stein. He was patient and positive in equal measures, negating a bowler friendly pitch and a world class bowling attack.

At 49-1, Australia needed to bowl well after lunch and that they did, Shane Watson delivering with great accuracy and nouse, backed up by an able Harris and some splendid fielding. Having stumbled to 96 All out, South Africa were staring down the barrel, trailing their anti-podean rivals by 188 runs.

For all the world the game seemed Australia's for the taking. A pitch providing assistance for the seamers and a lead of 188 that may have been unassailable without addition. South Africa's only hope lay in the sublime or the ridiculous. The nature of Test cricket suggested one or the other might happen, but it is rare that both happen. It is even rarer that sublime and ridiculous are witnessed in consecutive innings.

Philander provided the Watson performance, taking his first 5 wickets for 9 runs. It must be said though that, some poor shot selection from the Australians has helped their cause. At 4-0, Watson was given out wrongly, but didn't think to review it. Philander, supported by a superb Morkel (3-9) has reopened a closed game and given South Africa unlikely hope of fashioning a result.

Australia should still win - but this game has proven once again that sometimes, we must expect the unexpected. Since I started typing, Australia's 10th pair have doubled their team's total (finishing 47 all out) which has provided a well-needed boost to their lead. Flip the coin and the South Africans will feel that if Peter Siddle can score runs on this pitch, so can Kallis, Smith et al.

To this point, this is the most bizarre and entertaining day's cricket I have witnessed. Test cricket has had a turbulent time of late. The betting scandal and the constant threat of a decline in worldwide popularity has left the longest form of the game's devotees in a state of nervous discontent.

This test match provides a timely reminder of why test match cricket is so special and why we must do everything within our power to protect it.

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