PERTH (Reuters) - Australia’s gamble on a rag-tag band of rookies and fringe players to overhaul their pace bowling unit paid rich dividends at the WACA on Friday, giving the hosts the edge in the third test against South Africa.
Although the tourists battled back from the depths of 6-75 to make 225 all out and then took a couple of quick Australian wickets, the hosts were more than happy with their day’s work and none was questioning the contribution of the pace attack.
James Pattinson’s series-ending injury in the second test had left Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus to bowl themselves into the ground in their ultimately unsuccessful attempt to force a result at the Adelaide Oval.
A second draw after Brisbane meant the stakes would be high in Perth.
The WACA test will potentially decide not only who takes the honours in the three-match series but also which of the two countries will be ranked number one in test cricket.
In a decision overshadowed by Ricky Ponting’s announcement on Thursday that this would be his final test, Australia’s selectors decided Siddle and Hilfenhaus could not be risked.
Instead, they recalled Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson and awarded a first cap to John Hastings, with all rounder Shane Watson offering support on his return from injury and off spinner Nathan Lyon retaining his place.
They were fully vindicated when all five got wickets on Friday with left-armers Starc and Johnson catching the eye early on opening day at the WACA.
Johnson has had a tough couple of years since suffering something of a meltdown during the 2010-11 Ashes series, but he proved once again on Friday there are few bowlers more dangerous at the WACA.
His ability to summon up swing at the ground has now netted him 32 wickets in five tests, including his career best 8-61 in the corresponding test against South Africa here in 2008.
At 31, the Perth test was potentially a last chance to get himself back into the side and perhaps get a chance to make his many English critics eat humble pie in next year’s Ashes.
His figures of 2-54 did not necessarily reflect the job he did in softening up the top order, in particular South Africa skipper Graeme Smith whose wicket was ultimately claimed by Watson.
“Mitch was really good today,” said Hastings, who opened the bowling.
“I’ve played him a couple of times for Victoria in the last couple of months and he bowled a couple of quick spells for us. His action looks good and he’s swinging the ball and that’s fantastic for Australian cricket I think.”
Starc (2-55) has considerable grace for a tall man and the ability to pull out the occasional peach of a ball.
On Friday, the 22-year-old produced two in six balls to trigger South Africa’s midday collapse by bowling opener Alviro Petersen and the all rounder Jacques Kallis through the gate.
Hastings (1-51) said he had fulfilled a boyhood dream when he was handed his baggy green cap before the start of play on and was delighted to have taken his first wicket in the shape of AB de Villiers.
While he is playing his first test in Perth, he and all his team mates are more than aware that it will be the 168th and last for former captain Ponting.
“It’s the end of an era and I don’t think we’ll know what we’re missing until he’s gone,” Hastings, 27, said.
“It is a massive motivation, everyone knows deep down that it’s his last game and we’ll be pushing as hard as we can to try and get that win for him.”
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Amlan Chakraborty