Five things we learned from Aussie collapse
David Warner flexed his muscles ahead of Wednesday night's return to Cape Town, but Australia hit a World Cup snag overnight with Glenn Maxwell back home in the sick bay.
Australia were cruising towards a series-winning triumph over South Africa at Port Elizabeth, before the middle-order failed to finish around Warner, ending the T20 side's eight-match winning streak and providing a sobering wake-up call in the process.
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Warner carried his bat to post a domineering 67 not out off 56 balls, but after sitting in the box seat right up until three overs to go when 25 was needed off 18, Australia lost Mitchell Marsh, Matthew Wade and Ashton Agar in quick succession to be left stranded 12 runs short.
The slow wicket became progressively difficult for batting, but the blown opportunity chasing a gettable 158, exposed a lingering question mark that hovers over the Australian T20 machine which has been otherwise steamrolling opponents over the past few months.
Here's five things we learned ahead of Wednesday's series decider to take place at the scene of the 2018 Sandpapergate scandal in Cape Town.
1. IS GLENN MAXWELL IRREPLACEABLE?
Australia's middle order has scarcely been put under the hammer during the team's nine-match unbeaten run, such has been the dominance of Warner, Aaron Finch and Steve Smith at the top.
But World Cups are all about pressure in the clutch moments, and Monday's loss to South Africa might prove a blessing in disguise, given it laid bare the fact Australia still have a lot they need to find out about their men batting at 4, 5 and 6.
Maxwell stood himself down from the tour to undergo elbow surgery, a decision that was inescapable according to his surgeon, but one that didn't go down altogether smoothly in the Australian ranks, with some feeling the operation could have been delayed.
Nonetheless, the struggles of the middle-order to capitalise on the platform set by Warner suggests Maxwell is a unique talent that Australia's World Cup campaign simply cannot do without.
Australia made the gut-feel call to promote Alex Carey from No. 6 to 4 to bat ahead of Wade and Marsh, but the wicketkeeper was pinned down by South African quick Lungi Ngidi (3-41), who also removed Marsh at a key moment.
The fight wasn't quite over, but Wade (1) and Ashton Agar (1) also failed to find the middle of the bat when the heat was on at the death with Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada firing from all cylinders.
Selectors dropped Ben McDermott and Ashton Turner for this series to back in Wade and Marsh as the new finishers.
Australia otherwise looks a very formidable outfit heading into a World Cup on home soil, but the one spot where they do look vulnerable is in the middle.
Assistant coach Andrew McDonald said there's no need for panic.
"I think exposure to those situations more often obviously grows experience and with experience comes the ability to execute," said McDonald.
"Today we didn't quite get that right … they'll be no doubt better for that experience as we grow and build towards the T20 World Cup.
"Justin (coach Langer) wants the players to be flexible, we're training them to be flexible and most of the time these guys have batted in all different situations and positions in the order. We'll be flexible between four, five and six and I don't think that'd be any different in Cape Town."
2. WARNER UNDAUNTED
Warner was filthy at not steering Australia home to victory, but his unbeaten innings once again showcased the mental strength that has seen him respond from his sandpaper suspension with such force.
If the concept of returning to the lion's den at Newlands in Cape Town this week is phasing him, it did not show in another commanding batting performance where he led from the front.
"I don't think there's any extra motivation when he comes to South Africa or against a specific opponent. He's motivated no matter what the scenario or the opposition is," said McDonald.
" … He's a competitor and I think every game of cricket means something to him. He was out there in the contest and he's disappointed as he sits there in the change rooms, he feels like he potentially could have got us over the line - that's the sort of player he is."
But after being embarrassed in game one, South Africa got up off the canvas in Port Elizabeth to show they are also up for the fight.
3. STEVE SMITH IS A FREAK
The art of spectacular feats of athleticism has become common place in modern T20 cricket, but Smith last night raised the bar with a simply stunning piece of fielding on the fence.
Quinton de Kock (70 off 47) looked to continue his flying start to the innings by punishing Adam Zampa over the deep mid-wicket boundary - only for Smith to throw his body outside the playing surface and toss the ball back without touching the ground to save five runs.
It had to be seen to be believed.
Ludicrous fielding from Steve Smith pic.twitter.com/Ykepk6bNTv— Mac - The Return (@MacTheReturn1) February 23, 2020
The difference between six and one could have been match-defining.
The world's best batsman showcased his extraordinary fielding ability at the death as well, stopping another six. On this occasion he would have completed the catch too had he not tripped on the boundary rope as he looked to come back into play.
Not to be outdone, South Africa's Faf du Plessis produced two stunning catches - one completed by himself to claim the crucial wicket of a cruising Smith, the other a bat-back job of his own to David Miller.
"I think the game gets better every day. The athleticism of the modern-day player is outstanding and they never cease to amaze," said McDonald.
"As you saw today they put a real show on and I think they cancelled each other out."
4. GUS RATES ZAMPA
Champion rugby league coach Phil Gould is starting up his own talent agency business, and maybe he's on the lookout for cricketers as well?
'Gus' was burning the midnight oil, watching the T20 to its conclusion, and although he was disgusted with Australia's crumbling batting performance - he lauded the skills and toughness of spinner Adam Zampa.
Adam ZAMPA is a terrific bowler. Love watching his competitiveness. Doesn’t matter what the sport is, when you are looking at young players and trying to assess their potential, COMPETITIVENESS, the willingness to compete regardless of the challenge, is a vital factor.— Phil Gould (@PhilGould15) February 23, 2020
"Adam ZAMPA is a terrific bowler," Gould wrote on twitter. "Love watching his competitiveness. Doesn't matter what the sport is, when you are looking at young players and trying to assess their potential, COMPETITIVENESS, the willingness to compete regardless of the challenge, is a vital factor."
Zampa is a mad fan of the Sydney Roosters, one of Gould's old teams.
5. FRONT FOOT NO BALL TECHNOLOGY IS A NO-BRAINER
Umpires copped plenty during the summer for missing blatant no-balls, but this morning they called a front-foot no-ball on South Africa's Lungi Ngidi which wasn't there.
The moment at the death had the potential to turn the match with Australia still decently poised to chase down the runs, but Ngidi followed up with a dot ball to defuse Warner's free swing.
The howler showcased why umpires are terrified to call no-balls and Aussie assistant McDonald said it's imperative that front foot technology become common place in international cricket, ahead of its introduction for the women's World Cup.
"In short, yes. I don't know the costs or what that looks like in terms of infrastructure around that. But it could have been a match-defining decision," he said.