Australia was better than a shortened day to open the third Test against South Africa, as Sydney’s traditional New Year’s cloud cover allowed only 47 overs to be thrown. There was an early tea break due to bad lighting, then it rained and the score remained at 138-1, with four more late in the day ending at 147-2. Usman Khawaja and Marnus Labuschagne put their 126 in concert, Khawaja didn’t come out in 54 and Labuschagne, who had previously survived a contentious refereeing decision, left with 79 points from the final ball of the day.
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Both teams rearranged their formations, foreseeing a turning surface. South Africa tapped backup goalkeeper Heinrich Klaasen at three o’clock after Theunis de Bruyn went home early for the birth of his child, replacing speed thrower Lungi Ngidi with non-spinning Simon Harmer. Josh Hazlewood replaces Scott Boland in the speed rankings, while Australia is not in an all-round position, choosing Ashton Agar as one of four bowlers to replace Mitchell Starc and partnered with Nathan Lyon as a second spinner.
The final change was for Matthew Renshaw to hit six for the injured Cameron Green, but that plan met a snag before the draw when Renshaw returned a positive Covid test. Under current regulations, he is still allowed to play while avoiding other players and officials, but can be replaced from the sidelines if he doesn’t feel too good. The listing of Peter Handscomb as the emergency player for this contingency raised questions about how team management knew early on that there was a problem.
Ultimately, Renshaw was not wanted on the first day and the Australians were content to hit first, given their bowling composition. David Warner rushed to 10 with a few bounds before swinging from Anrich Nortje to a wide ball and crossing the top edge to slide. Khawaja and Labuschagne then moved slowly, reaching 68 at lunchtime on a surface that offered no movement or zip for bowlers but made it difficult to score goals due to its calm speed and low bounce.
Spin looked dangerous on both sides of his lunch as Harmer knotted Khawaja before the break, then knocked lbw down with a touch of a glove. Realizing the danger, Labuschagne counterattacked with a series of sweeps, then continued bowling faster after Harmer and Keshav Maharaj were removed. Boundaries overlapped eight out of nine before Jansen thought he had made a breakthrough, with Harmer lowering on the slide to take the lead.
Decisions on these catches evolved as the referees acknowledged that the television footage was inadequate and tended to side with the fielder. The soft signal on the field was given, the catcher convinced, but the generally reliable Richard Kettleborough decided that an inconclusive side square showed the ball hitting the ground when other pictures suggested that it likely showed the catcher’s finger being pressed. the ground is something that is easily concealed given that grass surfaces are never flat. Compared to similar recent events with different outcomes, the inconsistency creaked more than logic.
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It didn’t cost South Africa too much in the end. Although it took hours to get Labuschagne out, most of it was spent off the field, with the umpires giving three more orders after the delay, then recalling four extra games before notching Nortje to the goalkeeper. In a rare instance of luck going against Labuschagne, as soon as Steve Smith showed up, the light meters saw him give the order to set off again, this time it was over for the day.
The heavy cloud was the main culprit and played the role of drizzle. With the expectation of torrential rains over the next three days, it’s a pattern that audiences have to get used to. Be brave, though: For the most part, the Bureau of Meteorology says rain on those days will only be “morning and afternoon”. Perfect for test cricket. At least people who buy virtual seats to raise funds for the McGrath Foundation don’t have to worry about getting wet.