South Africa keep Australia in check on 1st day of series

Australia's captain Steven Smith, right, watches as South Africa's bowler Keshav Maharaj‚ celebrates his dismissal for 56 runs on day one of the first test match between South Africa and Australia at Kingsmead stadium in Durban, South Africa, Thursday, March 1. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Australia’s captain Steven Smith, right, watches as South Africa’s bowler Keshav Maharaj‚ celebrates his dismissal for 56 runs on day one of the first test match between South Africa and Australia at Kingsmead stadium in Durban, South Africa, Thursday, March 1. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Durban, South Africa (AP) — South Africa kept Australia’s big three of Steve Smith, David Warner and Shaun Marsh in check on the opening day of the four-test series on Thursday.

Australia were 225-5 at stumps at Kingsmead in Durban after Smith and Warner made half-centuries and Marsh 40. None of them went on to big scores, though, giving South Africa reason to be positive.

“We’re probably two (wickets) down too many,” Warner said.

Mitchell Marsh was 32 not out and Tim Paine 21 not out at stumps after bad light stopped play, improving Australia’s position from 177-5.

Smith made 56, his fifth straight score of 50 or more in test cricket, but his fall to spinner Keshav Maharaj before tea was the biggest moment of the day. Considering Smith’s most recent scores in the Ashes — 239, 76, 102 not out, and 83 — getting the best batsman in the world out for a mere 56 felt like an early victory for the South Africans.

Smith’s exit, celebrated exuberantly by Maharaj and South Africa skipper Faf du Plessis, followed Warner’s dismissal for 51 from the last ball of the first session. Marsh also fell to Maharaj nine overs after Smith, giving the spinner 2-69 and suggesting that the slow bowlers may have a big say on a sluggish surface after much of the pre-match focus was on the two sides’ fearsome fast-bowling attacks.

“I like to go under the radar. I like to go about my business quietly,” Maharaj said.

On getting Smith, Maharaj said: “To gain the reward is a nice feeling. We put a lot of work in behind the scenes.”

Maharaj, on as early as the 11th over, also nearly got Warner on the first ball he bowled, when he beat the opener with turn and bounce. A review of South Africa’s strong lbw appeal showed the ball missing leg stump.

Australia, flying high off the 4-0 Ashes rout in which Smith averaged 137, Marsh 74 and Warner 63, were probably slightly disappointed with their start considering the benign pitch, which led Smith to happily bat first after winning the toss.

Delighted with their current form, Australia also kept the same team that beat England by an innings in the final match of the Ashes in Sydney. South Africa brought in Theunis de Bruyn at No. 7 to bolster their batting lineup.

Smith’s partnership with Warner was worth 56 after Australia started slowly and were 15-1 and 39-2.

Opener Cameron Bancroft, in dire form, was out first to Vernon Philander for 5, edging behind to wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock. Usman Khawaja (14) fell in Kagiso Rabada’s first over, also caught by de Kock, this time a diving grab to the ‘keeper’s left.

Warner was caught off a flying outside edge to AB de Villiers at slip on the last ball before lunch, giving Philander his second wicket of the session and South Africa the first momentum of the first South Africa-Australia four-test series in nearly half a century.

The last four-match series, in 1970, was won 4-0 by South Africa but since South Africa’s readmission to international cricket after apartheid, Australia have been supremely successful in the country, winning five of their seven series and drawing the other two for an unbeaten record.

It was unfortunate that less than 4,000 people were at Kingsmead for the opening skirmish of this series, which doesn’t involve top-ranked India yet feels like a battle between the best teams in the world. Australia arrive after hammering England and South Africa’s last series was a 2-1 win over No. 1 India.

“If people don’t want to come, then they’re going to miss out on some good cricket,” Warner said.

Warner hit six fours when he was cramped for room and nicked the last ball of the first session from Philander to de Villiers, who fell back as he took the catch around chest-high.

Smith’s dismissal ended a 51-run stand with Shaun Marsh. Smith sent an outside edge past gully for his first four, and hit 10 more boundaries.

But he tried to cut a ball from Maharaj that was too close to him. A thin edge deflected up off de Kock’s gloves and was caught easily by de Villiers at slip.

Shaun Marsh survived an lbw appeal on 19, with replays showing he was out after the umpire turned down Rabada’s appeal. The home team had no TV reviews to overturn the decision after using them both early on.

Maharaj did get Marsh with a classic left-arm spinner dismissal, though, enticing him forward and getting enough turn to flick off the bat edge to de Villiers at slip.