South Africa went to stumps on the first day of the series decider at the Wanderers on 313-6 after a dominant 152 from opener Aiden Markram, and 69 from AB de Villiers.
Two late strikes by fast bowler Chadd Sayers on his Test debut and three earlier wickets from Pat Cummins gave the Australians precious hope of saving the series – and winning back a little respect on the way – after a week of damnation over the ball-tampering affair.
New Australia captain Tim Paine, keen to draw a line under the enmity between the teams through an ill-tempered series, suggested they shake hands before play – not a common practice in cricket.
“There’s been a lot of water going under the bridge and a bit of tension between the sides,” Paine said. “For us, it was to show we want to be super competitive but we also want to be respectful of the opposition.”
The South Africans agreed to the idea. “There’s been a lot of drama this last week and it’s not nice to see,” Markram said. “To start afresh, I thought it was a great gesture just to show everyone that there are people behind this cricket and they have feelings, too.”
The Australia team began the first day in Johannesburg standing in a tight circle on the field before play to congratulate Sayers on being selected for his debut in place of the injured Mitchell Starc.
Batsmen Peter Handscomb, Matthew Renshaw and Joe Burns were returning to the team as a result of the scandal. They replaced captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, all banned long-term and thrown off the tour for their roles in plotting and carrying out the ball tampering in the third Test in Cape Town.
Renshaw and Burns rushed over from Australia in the last few days to join a squad with its morale in pieces. “We’re sort of taking it one day at a time and slowly trying to win back the respect of the cricket world and our fans and the Australian public,” Paine said.
Leading 2-1 after a 322-run win in Cape Town, and seeking to seal the series, South Africa put together four strong partnerships for their first five wickets to apply more pressure on the Aussies: 53 between Markram and Dean Elgar (19), 89 between Markram and Hashim Amla (27), 105 between Markram and de Villiers, and 52 between de Villiers and Temba Bavuma (25 not out). With South Africa 247-2, Australia were in danger of further humiliation.
“Where’s your captain?” the Wanderers crowd then chanted. “Where’s your Warner?”
Australia found a way to fight back in the right way. Cummins removed Markram and South Africa captain Faf du Plessis in the space of two balls, to give the fast bowler 3-53. Sayers took two wickets in three balls late in the day, sending back De Villiers and Kagiso Rabada in his 2-64 on debut. Sayers, Handscomb and Renshaw also all took catches.
“The way we stuck at it today was terrific,” added Paine.