Tough talk no match for tough cricket

David Warner is beaten on the outside edge Associated Press

In the most frequently recalled moment of the 1995 series in which Australia wrested the Frank Worrell Trophy from the West Indies, Steve Waugh chose to pick a fight with Curtly Ambrose in Trinidad. This stand-off, where Ambrose ultimately had to be pulled away by his captain Richie Richardson, came to be seen as symbolic of Australian ascendancy, and mentality.

Less frequently cited, though it really should be, is that Waugh picked the fight in the midst of a half-century made with bowling conditions totally in Ambrose's favour, in an innings where no-one else made 20. Though West Indies won the Test, they were now wary of Waugh who, on a better pitch in Jamaica, went on to score the 200 that decided the series. We seem to remember the 30 seconds of tough talk more readily than the hour upon hour of tough batting.

Had Waugh fired up Ambrose then got out, and not followed up in the next match, how would his attempt at mental disintegration have been viewed? There's a simple answer to that, for in the previous encounter between Australia and West Indies, Dean Jones did exactly that. Pre-emptively asking Ambrose to remove his white wrist band in a World Series final at the SCG, he steamed up the fast man to such effect that West Indies did not lose another match on tour. Without the tough cricket, the rest looks more like competitive disadvantage, self-inflicted at that.

Having started the day with a public rebuke from the Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland for overdoing the "tough talk" or whatever other euphemism best suited the sanctionable actions of Nathan Lyon and David Warner at Kingsmead, Steven Smith's team set out to play the tough cricket of Waugh at St George's Park. They started with a tough decision - electing to bat on a pitch that was sure to help South Africa's seamers - and were given the ideal start by Warner and Cameron Bancroft.

But the return of a familiar brittleness to the batting line-up, scythed through by Kagiso Rabada, provided a reminder that for all the debates about the image of the Australian side and that way they play their cricket, it is all pretty moot if the top six are unable to stand up technically and mentally to concerted pressure. In other words, you've got to stick it out if you're going to dish it out. With a couple of notable exceptions on day one in Port Elizabeth, the Australians were more Jones than Waugh.

Walking out under an overcast sky and with moisture underfoot, Warner and Bancroft knew their commission would be a testy one. Vernon Philander and Rabada immediately had the ball seaming, but were met for the most part by sound judgement of what to play and what to leave, and relatively few flirtations of bat towards the moving ball. When, after an hour of stolid occupation, the dam burst with a flurry of boundaries, it seemed the Australians were through the most difficult bit.

Warner's innings, given the circumstances of the past week and even the fact he had such limited preparation for the tour, was exemplary. He creates such fine margins for a bowler's error, allied to a fundamental tight defence, all the while with a level of balance that allows him to turn good balls into four-scoring balls with a simple weight transfer and a swift flash of the blade. The hour leading to lunch was joyous to watch as he combined all these elements in conditions still weighted very much towards the bowlers.

Bancroft, meanwhile, does not possess Warner's outrageous skill and is still finding his way, but he was able to show strong balance here to draw the bowlers into attacking his stumps and then scoring fluently through the leg side as a result. One on-drive past Warner at the non-striker's end was redolent of the very best top-order players, and numerous other strokes in the straight-midwicket region forced South Africa to revert to a wider line outside the off stump.

Unfortunately for Bancroft and Australia, this was where the day changed. As lunch approached, he began to chase these wider deliveries, playing and missing at several, before being tempted into a push at Philander just as the time approached for the lifting of the bails. That wicket did not undo the good work of the morning, but it did allow the South Africans to enter the afternoon with an opening to exploit.

Usman Khawaja, who is not enjoying the best of tours, was duly coaxed into following a Philander delivery running across him, Warner played for away movement when there was none, and before either Shaun Marsh or Smith could press home their starts they were upended by Rabada's reverse swing and speed. For Smith, the dismissal is one that seems to happen about twice a season - misjudging a ball angling in at his stumps and falling lbw in the manner all bowlers think they can dismiss him, but Chadd Sayers in a Sheffield Shield match back in November was the most recent. For Shaun Marsh, falling over to a late swinger for 24 was not as disastrous as his 2014 pair on this ground, but may feel still more frustrating.

None of Mitchell Marsh, Pat Cummins or Mitchell Starc could hold up Rabada for long, meaning that for the third time since the Bangladesh tour the Australians had succumbed to what the team analyst Dene Hills would deem a collapse. A decline from 98 for 0 to 182 for 8 will certainly exhume many of the old questions about Australia's batting wherewithal in difficult, seaming conditions - questions that are almost as old as those about sledging. Warner described the surface as "English", which will interest James Anderson and Stuart Broad, among others.

"It seemed to me to be very much like England, where, if you get through the tough periods with the new ball, you can try and cash in a little bit after," Warner told SuperSport. "I felt like it was a good wicket and if they got it into the right areas they were going to challenge us. But coming from 0 for 98 to be all out for 240-odd is quite disappointing. It was one of those English wickets where it does just a bit. It was doing too much early. And that's where the nicks come into play and bowled and lbw come into play."

Nathan Lyon, brought in to put the best spin on Australia's day, essentially summed it up as a case of wasting a strong start and failing to recognise a key moment. "A tough day for Australia but the positive thing is I thought we actually got through the real difficult part of our batting innings with being 0 for 18 in the first hour and then to be 1 for 98. I thought the batters Cameron and Davey did a fantastic job," Lyon said after play. "The disappointing part is we spoke about the key moments before the series and we didn't identify the big key moment with Rabada reversing the ball.

"When you've got a world-class bowler like Rabada bowling in a spell like that, we've got to be better and sharper to identify those big moments and try to shut that down. That's the game of cricket, hats off to Rabada, he outbowled us today."

At the tail end of the innings, however, Australia did get a second glimpse of the tough cricket Waugh had embodied. By his own admission, Tim Paine was not brought into this team for his batting, but he was able to fashion lower order stands of 30 and 31 with Lyon and the last man Josh Hazlewood, meaning the tourists will at least have a fighting chance on day two given the pitch's various vagaries of lateral movement and variations in pace. Lyon spoke glowingly of Paine's calming presence at the crease.

"After Tim's been brought in at the start of the summer, I think he's provided a lot of calmness around batting with the tail," Lyon said. "I know personally I like batting with him, he seems to not make you so nervous. Especially as a bowler who can't hold it [the bat], you've got to try and enjoy the challenge of facing the best bowlers in the world and I certainly was enjoying that out there today and credit has to go to Tim, he played a massive role in that to get the score from 170 to 240.

"It's well below par, I'm not saying we're even close to it, but it's given us a sniff and an opportunity to bowl well and hopefully challenge these guys' defence."

Perhaps the most stinging element of Sutherland's message on Friday morning had been that "the Australian team understands that fans expect better". Whatever that means in terms of on-field comportment and use of verbal intimidation, the non-negotiable is that followers of the Australian game demand toughness in terms of deed rather than word. More Waugh than Jones; more Warner, Bancroft and Paine than the rest.