Michael Clarke celebrates his double century against South Africa at the Gabba. (Reuters)
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Ed Cowan answered his critics in style and captain Michael Clarke carried on from where he had left off last summer as the pair blunted the strong South Africa attack at the Gabba in Brisbane today and ensured that the first Test match could still have an unlikely result despite the second day's play being washed out. At stumps on the fourth day, Australia were 487 for 4, a lead of 37 runs, with Clarke unbeaten on 218 and Michael Hussey 86 not out.
The hosts scored 376 runs today for the loss of only Cowan's wicket as Clarke scored his third double century of the year, joining the legendary Sir Don Bradman as the only other batsman to do so. Clarke also reached the 1,000 Test runs landmark for the calendar year during his unbeaten 350-ball knock. Clarke added 259 runs for the fourth wicket with Cowan and his unbeaten partnership with Hussey is 188 runs in only 36.2 overs.
In a display of sublime batting and counter-attacking, Clarke led from the front and has put Australia into command and given his team the much-needed momentum for the remainder of the series as well the last day of the match tomorrow. It took Clarke 210 deliveries to score his century, but only a further 125 more for his next 100 runs. Hussey was his usual busy and has hit 12 boundaries in his 109-ball 86*.
South Africa captain Graeme Smith and his team only have themselves to blame for their defensive mindset and not being proactive enough to induce mistakes from the Australian batsmen, especially when they had the hosts on the ropes at 40 for 3 yesterday. It could probably be a hard road back in the series for the No. 1 Test ranked side with the hosts' giving South Africa plenty of food for thought about the composition of their team and tactics.
Australia started the day at 111 for 3, still 339 behind the tourists' score of 450 and under pressure not to lose any early wickets as it would have given South Africa a real chance of taking a crucial first innings lead. But, Cowan and Clarke took Australia to safety and made the South African bowlers toil on a dull and unhelpful Gabba pitch with their record 259-run partnership for the fourth wicket. Their partnership was an Australian record for the fourth wicket at the Gabba, beating the 245 Clarke and Mike Hussey made against Sri Lanka in 2007. It is also now the highest-ever fourth wicket partnership for all Test matches involving Australia and South Africa.
Cowan and Clarke looked to extend their partnership into the third session on the fourth day, but the left-handed opening batsman was run out freakishly shortly before tea for 136 when he backed up too far at the non-striker's end and was well short of his crease when the ball hit the stumps off Dale Steyn's hand. Cowan had been backing up too far even before his dismissal and he made things harder for himself by holding the bat in the right hand, which is his wrong hand. It was an unfortunate end to a terrific innings which will go a long way in making Cowan's critics eat their words. At the start of the series, Cowan had set two targets for himself - to score at a fast rate and make big scores - and he achieved both with his 257-ball 136.
The hallmark of Cowan's innings was the awareness of his favoured scoring zones, technique and knowing when to defend, and his calmness at the crease. Cowan, however, had his share of fortune as an inside edge of Steyn just missed the off stump in the first session; he would have been run out on 106 had Jacques Rudolph hit the stumps directly from midwicket, and, when on 123, he was dropped by Steyn hooking Rory Kleinveldt to fine leg. Steyn appeared to be distracted by Jacques Rudolph going for the catch and was not in position when the ball hit his hands.
He brought up his fourth Test half-century with a single to square leg off the third ball of the day and went into lunch on 98. Cowan brought up his maiden Test century in the second over after resumption when he pulled a short Vernon Philander delivery to the square leg boundary and celebrated the landmark with gusto. It took Cowan 185 deliveries to get the century and this innings will go a long way in his self-confidence and ability to perform in the international arena.
Clarke, meanwhile, continued his stellar form since taking over as captain, and though he had his share of troubles with the short ball; he scored runs around the wicket and played shots straight from the coaching manual and was a joy to watch. The most impressive part of Clarke's innings was his self-restraint and realisation that he's aware that the longer he is in the middle, the better it is for Australia.
Clarke also did have more than his share of luck; and the first of his uncomfortable moments came almost immediately after he reached his 23rd Test half-century when a miscued pull shot off Kleinveldt and was relieved when the consequent edge looped over the head of fielder Philander. He was also nearly run out going for a second run that would have brought him to the hundred mark and even after reaching the three-figure mark, Clarke had more than nervy moment when facing the short deliveries. He reached his 20th Test hundred, and fourth in Brisbane, with a push behind point off Kleinveldt to dash through for a single in the 74th over of the innings. It was his third century of the year after his unbeaten 329 and 210 against India at home in January. As captain he is averaging over 60 with the bat.
South Africa's bowlers didn't help their own cause by bowling a clutch of no-balls and being erratic with their line and length. They were also unusually sloppy in the field for a South African team. Morne Morkel was the best of the South African players, and on any other day, he could have taken two or three wickets, but he didn't have any luck going his way.
The one-dimensional nature of South Africa's attack didn't help either, especially when JP Duminy was ruled out of the series with an achilles tendon injury on the first day of the match. South Africa's gamble of going in with Kleinveldt ahead of Imran Tahir will be a decision that the Proteas would have rued today, especially as they were forced to turn to the ineffective part-time spin of Smith and Hashim Amla.