Australia did not bat particularly well on day three at Kingsmead. No one went on from a start, and several batsmen had reason to be regretful about their choice of shot, from a pulling David Warner and a reverse-sweeping Usman Khawaja to a dancing Cameron Bancroft and a paddling Steven Smith. The day ended with Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood dodging and weaving as Durban's light faded, with little more than 200 runs on the board.
But, on a deteriorating pitch, this was far from a disastrous day for the tourists, and in many ways underlined how Smith's team has managed to improve consistently in what had been the single most damaging area of their play across all formats, especially in Tests: batting collapses. Despite losing nine wickets for 213, at no stage did the Australians lose them in anything like the same rush that characterised the docking of the South African tail on day two with the loss of 5 for 12.
In statistics compiled by the team's analyst, Dene Hills, up to the Chittagong Test against Bangladesh in September last year, the Australians had suffered 15 collapses in 14 matches. However, since that game, won to square the series, the team has suffered only two more in six games. Not surprisingly, the Dhaka Test immediately before Chittagong was their most recent defeat, and Durban has seen the continuation of a vital theme for any successful side.
Across this match, in fact, only the one wicket - the ninth of the second innings on day three - has fallen before the two batsmen at the crease had added at least 10 runs together. At the same time, only two wickets - the 10th of the first innings and the ninth of the second - have arrived within five overs of the previous one. A similar pattern pervaded the Ashes victory, meaning that not only have Australia found a way to avoid terminal rushes of wickets, they have also made opponents work especially hard.
The feeling of South African frustration at not being able to string Australian wickets together while losing so many of their own was summed up by AB de Villiers in reference to Mitchell Marsh's innings on days one and two: "We were about to break through, about to make them sweat a bit and he comes in and basically scores a 100. Plans were in place. Marsh rallied the troops at the back-end really well. It seemed like every tail-ender was prepared to fight. It's tough when you're playing against guys like that. We've got the same kind of batting line-up; it just didn't work for us."
Over hours, sessions, days, matches and series, this sense of frustration can compound for the opposition, while at the same time instilling enormous belief within the dressing room of the team that can keep those collapses at bay.
It should not be underestimated how much this was a problem for Australia, and, apart from the use of statistics, there is another decent way of underlining the fact. Looking back at the public words of captain Smith, in the wake of defeats, and the pattern is undeniable. Starting with the March 2016 World T20 tournament in India that ended short of the desired goal, and in each series since.
"We probably let ourselves down in the middle overs again... losing a few wickets in clumps, not being able to get the partnerships together," Smith had said, before returning to the theme on the Test tour of Sri Lanka that began a run of five consecutive Test-match defeats. "We just need to be better throughout the innings," he said, "and not lose wickets in clumps like we've been doing."
By November, and a humiliating innings loss to South Africa in Hobart, Smith was getting sick of saying it. "Too many times," he remarked wearily, "we've lost wickets in clumps. That's what I asked for from the boys, to try and spend that time out in the middle and keep their bowlers out there bowling, but we didn't have that fight and we haven't been resilient enough."
After a brief respite against Pakistan, the pattern re-emerged in India, where despite a much-improved overall display, the rapid loss of wickets in both innings in Bengaluru prevented the Australians from taking an unbeatable 2-0 lead ("in the first innings we probably lost a few wickets in clumps") and another quick subsidence in Dharamsala meant the series would end in an Indian victory. Smith, by then extremely drained by his exertions in the series, returned to his theme. "That can certainly happen here in India, you can lose wickets in clumps," he said. "That's what we talk about as a team, try and not do that."
By September and October, on tours of Bangladesh and India, the problem had reached epidemic proportions. After losing narrowly in Dhaka on a difficult pitch, Smith again said it. "We are losing wickets in clumps, which we can't afford to do." And then after winning in Chittagong to square the series, Smith arrived armed with the numbers provided by Hills: "We got ourselves into one of our collapses that we've had. I think we've had 15 collapses in our last 14 games, our analyst told me yesterday."
Changes to eradicate the problem began at the selection table, with the dropping of Matt Renshaw and Matthew Wade ahead of the Ashes, for Cameron Bancroft and Tim Paine. After the Adelaide day-night Test, in which one of the collapses took place, Peter Handscomb was left out for the reinvented Mitchell Marsh. All three inclusions have brought with them a level of solidity at the crease their predecessors could not quite muster, even if Renshaw was harshly dealt with after a promising start to his Test career was followed by a run of low Sheffield Shield scores.
In retaining Bancroft, Darren Lehmann, the coach , has emphasised not Bancroft's own scores but his partnerships with David Warner - 56 in the second innings at Kingsmead the latest in a string of sound starts. "I've been impressed with the way he's gone about it with Davey Warner," Lehmann said after the SCG Ashes Test. "He would like bigger scores, as you always would as a batsman, but some of our starts have been exceptional, especially early on in the series, apart from Adelaide. For me, you've got a young guy there learning his craft, he's got a great work ethic... we're pretty happy with him."
At the same time, there has been renewed emphasis on the need for the lower order to contribute serious runs and partnerships. Pat Cummins has been most valuable in this regard, but Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood have all had their moments to contribute. With time and experience, the collective has gained in strength and reliability, even on days when, as in Durban, the innings has been merely passable rather than outstanding.
"I think experience, it comes with that a lot," Bancroft said. "Certainly, a lot of the guys would have been exposed to those [difficult] times in the Australian team, who are playing in this game right now and have been able to play a lot more together accumulating games and experience. I certainly think that is a big part of being able to move on and improve from things like that.
"So it was nice in the first innings seeing Mitch come out and play as well as he did, Shaun as well. And obviously for the tail to be able to wag as well as did it as well was really important. I know that every batsman in our line-up from one to 11 takes pride when they get their opportunity out in the middle. So that is certainly the mentality in our team. By doing so, it creates really good partnerships and really good totals too."
One of the sharper observations made by the former Australian opener Chris Rogers in the wake of his international retirement concerned how the most consistent players did their job for the team: it is not so much about making big runs when you're going well, but hanging around for an hour or so when you are battling. Those little innings are what make the difference over time between an average of 45 and one of 50-plus.
The same most certainly applies to the avoidance of batting collapses, and to the building of consistently successful teams. Smith's team is building right now, and events in Durban were a brick in the wall. Australia did not bat particularly well at Kingsmead, but well enough to keep construction going.