Australia on top as the weather holds up on day one of the third test with South Africa

Australia had the better shortened day to open the third Test against South Africa, as Sydney’s traditional New Year’s cloud cover provided only 47 overs. An early tea break was called due to poor light, followed by rain, leaving the score at 138–1 before four consecutive overtime periods later in the day finished 147–2. Usman Khawaja and Marnus Labuschagne played 126 matches, with Khawaja finishing on 54 and Labuschagne going off the last ball of the day for 79, having previously survived a controversial referee decision.

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Both teams changed their line-ups, anticipating the change of surface. South Africa swapped bowler Lungi Ngidi for off-spinner Simon Harmer, with backup goaltender Heinrich Klaasen hitting at three o’clock after Theunis de Bruyn went home early due to the birth of his baby. Josh Hazlewood replaced Scott Boland in the pace rankings, while Australia selected Ashton Agar not as an all-rounder, but as one of four bowlers to replace Mitchell Starc, partnering Nathan Lyon as second spinner.

The final substitute was Matthew Renshaw who batted in sixth for the injured Cameron Green, but that plan hit a snag before the pitch when Renshaw tested positive for Covid. Under current rules, he can still play while keeping his distance from other players and referees, but can be substituted from the side if he feels too bad. Peter Handscomb was listed as a fallback player for the situation, raising questions about how team management knew there was a problem.

Late in the evening, Anrich Nortje orders Marnus Labuschagne to march.

Late in the evening, Anrich Nortje orders Marnus Labuschagne to march. Photo: David Gray/AFP/Getty Images

Ultimately, Renshaw was not required on the first day, and given their bowling lineup, the Australians were content to strike first. David Warner raced to 10 with few limits before swinging a wide ball from Anrich Nortje and making a top edge to slide. Khawaja and Labuschagne moved slowly thereafter, reaching 68 before lunch on a surface that offered no movement or lock for the bowlers, but made it difficult to score due to its leisurely pace and low rebound.

Spin looked at the dangers on both sides of the lunch, with Harmer tying Khawaja in knots before the break, then flipping him lbw after, knocking him over with a glove touch. Realizing the danger, Labuschagne counter-attacked with a barrage of sweeping shots, then continued to bowl faster as Harmer and Keshav Maharaj were taken down. The limits came in a sequence of eight overs out of nine before Jansen thought he had a breakthrough, Harmer going low on a slip to catch up front.

The rulings on these catches evolved, with the judges finding the television images inappropriate and tending to side with the fielder. The field’s soft signal was off, the catcher was confident, but the generally reliable Richard Kettleborough decided that one ambiguous sideframe showed the ball touching the ground, while other photos suggested they most likely showed the catcher’s finger pressed into the ground, something easily obscured given the keep in mind that the turf surface is never flat. Compared to similar recent episodes with mixed results, incoherence grated more than logic.

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After all, South Africa didn’t cost much. Although it took more hours to draw Labuschagne out, most of it was spent off the pitch, with the referees ordering three kicks after the break and then recalling the game for four kicks before Nortje hit the keeper. In a rare case of luck against Labuschagne, Steve Smith showed up in the middle as the light meters showed he had ordered him out again, this time done for the day.

Dense cloud was the main culprit, with drizzle involved. Given the forecasted showers over the next three days, this is a pattern viewers should get used to. Have courage though: The Bureau of Meteorology mainly says that it will only rain “mornings and afternoons” on these days. Perfect for playing test cricket. At least those buying virtual spaces to raise funds for the McGrath Foundation don’t have to worry about getting wet.

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