The Proteas formed a huddle next to the Gabba boundary rope on Sunday afternoon, linking arms under the South African flag.
The Test match was effectively over. They had been embarrassed, rolled for 99, their lowest score on Australian soil since World War II, setting the hosts a paltry target of 34 for victory.
Proteas captain Dean Elgar spoke to his comrades, mapping out a plan for the final 45 minutes of the match. Keshav Maharaj nodded in approval.
The South Africans seemingly had nothing to gain, but that certainly wasn’t the case.
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Kagiso Rabada set about terrorising Australia’s top order on the green monster, taking four wickets in an explosive four-over spell that stunned the Brisbane crowd and, importantly, crippled the confidence of his opponents.
Usman Khawaja was the first to go, backing away and carving a short delivery towards to point fielder. The elegant left-hander had contributed 13 runs in the Gabba Test, making it his worst performance in Australian whites since March 2018.
David Warner departed soon after, edging a length delivery with minimal footwork towards the slip cordon for 3. The veteran opener cracked a smile, glanced down at the wicket and quickly made his way back towards the sheds.
It was the fifth consecutive time Rabada had dismissed Warner in Tests, with the New South Welshman failing to reach fifty on each occasion. Although it’s too soon to bring out the dreaded bunny moniker, their rivalry will become an intriguing talking point ahead of Boxing Day.
Rabada then removed both Steve Smith and Travis Head in his third over — the former threw his wicket away with a loose cut stroke before the latter gloved a short ball down the leg side, departing in almost identical fashion to the first innings … earlier that day.
Soon after, Head achieved the rare feat of receiving the Player of the Match honours despite being dismissed twice earlier that day.
Australia ultimately crawled towards the 34-run target courtesy of some wayward bowling from Rabada and Anrich Nortje. More than half of Australia’s runs in the second innings came from extras, with several bouncers sailing over the wicketkeeper’s head.
But it was as unconvincing a run chase as you could fathom. Australia had won the Test match, but momentum was firmly on South Africa’s side ahead of Boxing Day.
Speaking to reporters in the post-match press conference, Proteas captain Dean Elgar confirmed the ferocious short-pitched barrage was a ploy to try and “open some old scars” within the Australian top order.
And it worked, a silver lining after a forgettable two-day contest for the South Africans.
“We are always trying to find another way to have an edge over our opposition,” Elgar said.
“To get them four down, those batters are going into Melbourne with maybe a little bit less confidence, it worked out nicely.
“Result aside, it was one of the game plans that worked out for us over the last two day.
“If this was a way of getting into their minds further, brilliant. I know a guy like (Rabada) is the most feared bowler we have here.
“If he has got that confidence running into the next Test, it’s brilliant for us.
“We are always looking to get into guys’ heads. It wasn’t the worst exercise.”
Rabada finished the Gabba Test with eight scalps to become the leading wicket-taker of the calendar year, leapfrogging Australian spinner Nathan Lyon.
“It gives us confidence,” Elgar said.
“He is a massive figure for us, not just in our bowling group but in our 16-man squad. When he puts his hand up like that it’s difficult not to follow.”
There were murmurs about Warner’s Test future leading into the South African series, and registering scores of 0 and 3 won’t help silence his doubters. The left-hander has averaged 20.61 in Tests this year, passing fifty just twice in his 11 most recent matches.
Next week will be Warner’s 100th Test match, but celebrations could be overshadowed by the lingering suspicions his days in the Australian side are numbered.
Also, curiously, Warner opted not to face the first delivery on Sunday afternoon, having fallen victim to Rabada for a golden duck 24 hours earlier.
Khawaja potentially offered to face the music, but Warner’s decision to start the second innings at the non-striker’s end certainly raised eyebrows.
Australian captain Pat Cummins denied that Rabada’s demolition had created any mental scars for Warner and the batters, citing the top order’s experience and unwavering resilience.
“The beauty of experience is they’ve seen it all before,” Cummins told reporters in the post-match press conference.
“Someone like Davey unfortunately missed out, but he’s a season pro, you don’t have to worry about him.
“I wouldn’t look too much into the wickets … a couple down leg, a couple of wide cut shots. I wouldn’t look into it too much.”
The second Test between Australia and South Africa gets underway at the MCG on Boxing Day, with the first delivery scheduled for 10.30pm AEDT.