It was a tale of three captains at the WACA, where Michael Clarke was injured while batting, his deputy-cum-replacement George Bailey rebuilt Australia’s innings, and their South African counterpart AB de Villiers threatened to pull off a record chase. Ultimately the difference was in the fortunes of Bailey and de Villiers: Bailey was dropped four times on his way to 70; de Villiers made a chanceless 80, then was run out in a mix-up with a tail-ender.
The loss of de Villiers ended any hope South Africa had of overtaking Australia’s 8 for 300. Never before had a team made that many to win a one-day international at the WACA, and in the end South Africa didn’t get especially close. A 46-run last-wicket stand could not disguise the lower-order collapse – the previous five wickets fell for 20 runs – and South Africa were dismissed for 268, giving Australia a 32-run win and a 1-0 lead.
The target was always going to be a challenge, and especially so after Mitchell Johnson’s pace accounted for Quinton de Kock and Hashim Amla in the first five overs of the chase. Farhaan Behardien was caught for 20 pulling to deep midwicket off Nathan Coulter-Nile, who finished with 4 for 48, and Faf du Plessis received a send-off from bowler Shane Watson after he pulled to fine leg for 31.
But de Villiers and David Miller then put on 126 for the fifth wicket, first steadying South Africa and then steering them into a position from which they could have dreamt of victory. Miller was strong through midwicket and struck five fours, plus one six that he launched over long-off from the bowling of Watson.
As usual, de Villiers scored all around the wicket. He was given lbw off Mitchell Marsh for 13 but had the decision overturned on review – it was clearly missing leg – and went on to bring up his half-century from his 53rd delivery with a six over midwicket off Glenn Maxwell. But the partnership ended when Coulter-Nile had Miller caught at mid-on for a run-a-ball 65.
South Africa were by then 5 for 202 in the 37th over, and with a required run-rate of 7.07 and de Villiers at the crease on 70 from 67, it could have gone either way. But the wickets started to tumble. In the same over, Coulter-Nile bounced Ryan McLaren and flicked the glove on the way through to Matthew Wade, and Josh Hazlewood had Vernon Philander caught behind in the next over.
Then came the crushing blow for South Africa, as Dale Steyn pushed to the off side off Hazlewood and took a couple of steps; his partner de Villiers overcommitted, turned back and was caught short by the direct hit of substitute Steven Smith. Coulter-Nile dismissed Steyn and then Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir showed some fight, but it was all over in the 49th over.
It was not what de Villiers had in mind when he won the toss and sent the Australians in. Two partnerships did the job for Australia: a 94-run opening stand from Aaron Finch and David Warner, and then a 92-run rebuilding effort for the sixth wicket between Bailey and Wade. Between those, Philander and his bowling colleagues caused some problems.
Warner crunched three sixes, including two off the fast men, on his way to a rapid 46 from 49 balls, and Finch found or cleared the boundary five times during his 35 from 40. But Philander had them both within the space of three balls, Warner caught off a pull to deep midwicket and Finch caught behind off a tentative push outside off.
Clarke had scored only 11 when he tried to hook Steyn but was through his shot early and gloved the ball through to de Kock, and Watson was caught at short fine leg off Tahir for 13. Bailey was challenged from the outset – first ball he ducked a searing bouncer from Steyn that grazed his shoulder and flew over the head of the wicketkeeper.
South Africa’s bowlers made life difficult for Bailey in the early stages but the team’s catching left him off the hook. Twice Bailey was dropped on 2, first when he cut hard off Morkel and Miller at point spilled an easy chance, and then when a leading edge off Tahir lobbed back to the bowler, who grassed an even simpler opportunity.
The Bailey let-offs cost South Africa. After Marsh was bowled for 10 by a lovely Philander delivery that seamed back in, Bailey and Wade combined for a partnership that was initially scratchy but ultimately importantly steady. They came together at 5 for 144 in the 30th over and pushed the ball around for a while, happy to rotate the strike and prevent any further collapse.
It took Bailey until his 50th ball to strike his first boundary, when he lofted Morkel back over his head for four during the batting Powerplay, and the runs began to flow a little easier. But there were two further lives for Bailey: on 39 he slogged McLaren high and Philander running back to long-on failed to cling on, and on 47 he pulled Philander and was dropped in the deep by Farhaan Behardien.
Bailey’s half-century came from his 69th delivery and he then started to go after the fast men, thumping McLaren for two sixes down the ground in one over, before also depositing a Steyn slower ball over the long-on rope. His luck ran out on 70 from 75 balls when du Plessis took the hardest of Bailey’s chances, running back from mid-off and taking the catch while falling down.
Wade moved on to 35 before he became the final victim of Philander, who finished with 4 for 45 after Wade was caught at deep cover. Late runs came via Maxwell and the tail, and Australia’s 104 from their last 10 overs proved critical. Clarke’s injury may prove more critical in the coming weeks, but for now, Australia can bask in a 1-0 series lead.