Johannesburg (AFP) – A career-best century by Aiden Markram added pain to an Australian side reeling from the ball tampering scandal on the first day of the fourth and final Test against Australia at the Wanderers Stadium on Friday.
Markram made a flawless 152 before the beleaguered Australians fought back with four late strikes as South Africa finished on 313 for six on the best batting pitch of a series which South Africa lead 2-1.
Markram, though, was the star on a day when players and spectators alike seemed to have tried to move on from the controversy and bad feeling which resulted in three Australian players, including sacked captain Steve Smith, being banned and banished for ball-tampering in the third Test at Cape Town last weekend.
South African captain Faf du Plessis and new Australian skipper Tim Paine had a friendly chat before the toss and in an unusual move players of both teams lined up to exchange handshakes after the national anthems.
Some fans could not resist poking fun at the Australians’ fateful attempts to doctor the ball in the third Test.
One banner among a group of spectators wearing yellow read: “Sandpaper Special, Only R10 (10 Rand)”.
But with the main cuplrits in the sandpaper scandal banished, there seemed virtually no animosity towards the tourists.
The only boos all day were directed at Paine when he appeared to claim a catch behind the wicket before indicating that he was not sure whether an edge from Markram had carried to him. Replays showed the ball had bounced.
The biggest problems for Australia were purely cricket-related.
Markram played a majestic innings against a bowling attack missing spearhead Mitchell Starc, who was ruled out with a stress fracture of his lower right leg -– an injury which will also force him to miss a lucrative stint with Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League.
Markram made his fourth century in ten Tests in what has been a remarkable debut season for the 23-year-old opening batsman.
He already owned two scores of 143, most recently in the first Test in Durban, but went past that before a cramped cut against Pat Cummins was caught by Mitchell Marsh at gully.
He again showed sound technique and good temperament allied with clean drives off front and back foot and some strong pull shots.
There were 11 fours and a straight six off Nathan Lyon as he reached his hundred off 216 balls.
He added six more fours off another 64 balls before he was out.
Cummins, Australia’s best bowler, made it a double strike when Du Plessis padded up to the first ball he faced and was leg before wicket to one which swung back sharply.
Cummins, who ran in hard all day, took three for 53.
New cap Chadd Sayers, who replaced Starc, toiled without success for much of the day before taking two wickets in three deliveries with the second new ball.
He claimed the prize wicket of AB de Villiers, caught off a faint inside edge, before having nightwatchman Kagiso Rabada caught at mid-off.
Sayers bowled 26 overs, more than anyone else, and took two for 64.
Australia could feel reasonably satisfied with their performance but their challenge will come when three new batsmen, Matt Renshaw, Joe Burns and Peter Handscomb have to face South Africa’s fast bowlers in place of the banned Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft.