Australia top-order lose battle of the crease

David Warner fell for 51 just before the interval AFP

In 1961, Australia played England at Lord's, on a pitch where a series of "depressions" just short of a length at the Nursery End caused numerous balls to rear up. A young opener by the name of Bill Lawry gave, according to Wisden, "a magnificent display of tenacity in his second Test match and he stayed six hours, ten minutes for 130", the innings that allowed Richie Benaud's team to sneak home. It was a match that went down in history as "the Battle of the Ridge".

Fifty-seven years on, there were far fewer gremlins in the Kingsmead pitch prepared for the meeting of South Africa and Australia. Instead, the surface was slow and holding, offering only minimal sideways movement for the bowlers and precious little pace for the batsmen to work with - broadly in line with the hosts' desire to slow Australia's tempo. These conditions, combined with the balance of the Proteas' bowling attack, made this less a battle of the ridge than a battle of the crease, as the visiting batsmen sought to avoid being tied down by the extremely consistent Vernon Philander in particular.

What unfolded, then, was another day of attritional cricket, with competing strategies and exchanges that, for the most part, fell the way of the hosts. Australia's batsmen were unable either to go on from starts or score freely, meaning their first innings devolved into a day of hard grind. Though happy to still be in occupation at the close, they had lost the opportunity to dictate terms at the top of the innings, or to form the sort of big partnership Steve Smith and Shaun Marsh had conjured at Centurion in the corresponding Test match, four years ago.

The problems likely to be posed by Philander had clearly been at the forefront of Australian minds leading into this match, as demonstrated by the early exchanges between the South African seamer, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft. Warner looked intent on either leaving the ball or turning the strike over whenever he got bat on ball, and in the second over of the match a desperately tight single would have resulted in Bancroft's run-out with a direct hit.

As fascinating was the sight of Bancroft coming face-to-face with the bowler who, more than anyone in the world, seemed geared towards exploiting the issues around the region of the off stump that the young West Australian had exhibited during the Ashes series against England. Over five Tests, Bancroft had repeatedly fallen prey either to an outside edge into the cordon or stumps disturbed through the gap between bat and pad.

This deficiency had been identified by numerous sharp observers as a result of a bat swing cutting across the line of the ball from third man towards midwicket, creating a reduced margin for error if the ball moved or Bancroft misjudged it. Anyone who saw Philander's spell to Virat Kohli in Cape Town during South Africa's previous Test series had a fair idea of his ability to find a way past even the very best batsmen - certainly Bancroft would have spent hours contemplating the challenge.

But rather than being confronted with it straight away, Bancroft faced only one of his first 19 balls from Philander, a fullish outswinger he knocked into the covers for a single, instead trying to blunt the rather different obstacle presented by Morne Morkel. As he watched Warner, Bancroft pondered his approach, and the best way to disrupt Philander's line and length - typically a matter of batting out of the crease to close the gap between bowler and batsman, the better to cover for any movement.

Given to plenty of thought about the game, Bancroft chose a somewhat different method. When he came back on strike to Philander for the fifth ball of the sixth over, Bancroft resolved to move out of his crease - not as he took guard, but as Philander delivered. The movement was a little early, Philander shifted shorter and wider, and the result was a wretched edge behind. It looked dreadful, and added further pressure to Bancroft after his Ashes failings. But it was perhaps a case of a good idea badly executed, rather than the brain snap it at first appeared.

"We have our plans and I've done it before with Vernon," Warner said. "It's more about to try and put him off his lengths because he's such a skillful bowler, he never really misses the mark. For me it was about trying to adjust his length, the ball was reversing so he was getting it to come back into me a bit so I tried to take the lbw out of the equation and try and bring the keeper up.

"Then obviously with the keeper up it was obviously about making sure my front pad is down the leg stump line and then trying to obviously negate getting bowled or lbw so it was a good ball, one shot low. I don't know if you guys can see, but down this bottom end it's quite wavy in the wicket, so if it's quite full it can keep low or take off a little bit. But at the end of the day he's a skilful bowler and he worked me over and got me out."

The challenge Philander posed was to be underlined by how Warner tried the more orthodox method amidst a typically busy and proactive half-century, an innings made all the more noteworthy by his truncated preparation for the series. There is one swift countermove to a batsman venturing out of his crease to a medium fast bowler - for the wicketkeeper to move up to the wicket and so threaten the possibility of a stumping. Quinton de Kock has not made many runs of late, but his willingness to make this move meant Warner had to remain crease-bound, and to the last ball before lunch received a delivery that popped a fraction. The resulting edge was held by an exultant AB de Villiers, and left Australia an uncertain three-down.

"The difference is he knows I'm back in my crease, so at the top of his mark he's had to ask one of the players where I'm batting, if I'm batting deep or not and where he pitched that delivery," Warner said. "If I'm not moving my feet or stuck on the crease you probably will nick that or you might miss it. It's good bowling, my job was to try to get the keeper up and I did that. I negated half a dozen balls he bowled into me I didn't want to get out and then he bowled me a good ball that I nicked off. That's the game."

Smith, of course, has recently been master of all he surveys at the Test-match batting crease, and in his early minutes at Kingsmead he looked capable of dominating once more. He found gaps, timed the ball, and pounced on anything short that sat obligingly up for the pull shot in particular. The use of de Kock up to the stumps to Philander, however, brought another edge, only this time de Villiers was unable to hang onto the most difficult of low chances when Smith was 47.

The chance arrived amid a period where Smith slowed down from his earlier pace - having reached 46 in 60 balls, he spent another 54 balls over his next 10 runs. While this in itself does not necessarily indicate that Smith is likely to lose his wicket - just ask England about his 512-minute occupation at the Gabba last November - it did allow South Africa to control the scoreboard and keep the game at a tempo whereby they were not being hurt by Smith's continued presence.

This, in turn, allowed for the persistent Keshav Maharaj to use his left-arm spin to good effect, once again showing the importance of the crease to proceedings on a slow pitch. While discussions of how to dismiss Smith have been wide-ranging and exhaustive over the past four years, there is one apparent blind spot regarding his back-foot play against spin - left-arm spin especially. As far back as the 2014 tour of the UAE, Smith fell to Yasir Shah when trying to force through the off side on the back foot, and in Sri Lanka two years later he found himself edging cut shots at Rangana Herath with alarming regularity.

Maharaj held Smith to 19 runs from 38 balls, and remarked later that at Kingsmead the key is to stop the scoring and allow batsmen to fall prey to the pitch's vagaries. The last of Maharaj's deliveries turned out to be a short ball outside the off stump that Smith rocked back to cut, and edged to slip via de Kock's gloves. Whether these dismissals are simply a quirk or a matter of Smith's head and feet not being in sync to give him the best chance of making full-blooded contact when he moves deep in his crease, they have now built up to a significant body of evidence.

After the "battle of the ridge", the Lord's ground staff worked assiduously to remove the uneven patches at the Nursery End, making batting a far less taxing assignment. But over the remainder of this match and this tour, the Australian top order is going to have to do a better job of negotiating the battle on the crease. For there is every indication that the pitches on show will continually create the environment for similar games between batsman and bowler - more cat and mouse than blood and thunder.