'We'll have to be better' - Australia's 'slip-up' to spin in Potchefstroom won't go unnoticed

Australia's stand-in captain Mitchell Marsh says his side will learn a lot from being exposed by South Africa's spinners in helpful conditions in Potchefstroom while the fitness of their own spinner Ashton Agar is a worry after he was unavailable due to soreness with his next opportunity to play before the World Cup unknown because of paternity leave.

Australia were 140 for 1 in the 15th over chasing an imposing but reachable 339 for victory to close out the series, particularly after the platform had been laid by David Warner, Travis Head and Marsh. But Australia lost 9 for 87 in less than 20 overs to lose by 111 runs with South Africa's left-arm wristspinner Tabraiz Shamsi and left-arm fingerspinner Keshav Maharaj sparking the collapse that included a bizarre run-out of a shoeless Warner.

Both Shamsi and Maharaj extracted sharp turn to deceive Marsh, Marnus Labuschagne and Marcus Stoinis, with Stoinis' continued lack of runs remaining a worry. Australia lost 4 for 43 in a ten-over sequence where the pair bowled unchanged after South Africa's quicks had been mauled at nearly 10 an over in the first 14 overs of the chase.

It was a passage of play that certainly would have been noted in Colombo, where simultaneously on a spinning surface at the R Premadasa Stadium, India's left-arm wristspinner Kuldeep Yadav and left-arm fingerspinner Ravindra Jadeja took six wickets between them as India defended 213, after Sri Lanka's left-arm fingerspinner Dunith Wellalage took 5 for 40.

But Marsh believed the Potchefstroom collapse was not cause for alarm.

"Hopefully we learn a lot from it," Marsh said at the post-match presentation. "There's no doubt we'll be exposed to those conditions throughout the World Cup and we'll have to be better. But I think the last 12 to 18 months, it's our second loss of that period and we have generally played spin really well. It's an area that we've thoroughly improved in. So tonight may be a little slip-up and hopefully we can rectify that in the next game."

Marsh is correct in stating that it was only Australia's second ODI loss in the last 12 months, having won ten of their past 12 matches in the format including two in India. But expanding out over the last 18 months, Australia's form against spin in Asia is a concern. They lost five of eight ODIs in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in 2022. The losses in Pakistan were not spin-related. But in Sri Lanka they failed a trial by spin with Wellalage, Maheesh Theekshana and Dhananjaya de Silva doing the bulk of the damage.

Australia could well get spinning pitches in their first three games in the World Cup as they face India in Chennai and then South Africa and Sri Lanka in Lucknow.

Adding to the concern is the fitness of their spin options. Agar has played just two ODIs this year and is unlikely to play another until the warm-up games of the World Cup as he is flying home from South Africa on Wednesday for the birth of his first child having played just one game in the series.

After making a career-best 48 not out and taking 1 for 40 to help Australia win the first ODI in Bloemfontein he was rested from the second match but was unavailable for the third as he was still sore, five days after the first game, having come off a minor calf tear that he suffered while training in the lead up to the tour. He is set to be assessed when he returns to Perth.

Agar's only other ODI this year was against India in Chennai where he and Adam Zampa took six wickets between them to help Australia successfully defend 269. He has only played four games of cricket since the end of January, all List A matches, bowling just 38.4 overs in match conditions in that time.

Australia wants the flexibility to be able to play two spinners in the World Cup, especially on spinning tracks like Chepauk in Chennai, and Agar's fitness will be crucial with Marsh admitting he would have liked two spinners in Potchefstroom.

"Ash [Agar] wasn't available for selection today, so that made it tough to play the two spinners," Marsh said at the post-match press conference. "And Zamps, he's got a big workload coming up, so we thought today was a good opportunity to rest him and give Tanveer [Sangha] an opportunity."

One positive was the performance of Head with the ball. He claimed 2 for 39 from ten overs just three days after conceding 41 in four in Bloemfontein. Glenn Maxwell's fitness cloud means Australia are light on part-time spin options among their batting allrounders but Head finding a groove with the ball will alleviate some of those concerns.

"I thought Travis Head bowled exceptionally well," Marsh said. "It was really good for him to get an opportunity to bowl and we were able to, I guess, pull them back a bit through the middle."

Tanveer Sangha bowled better than his figures - 1 for 64 in eight overs - suggested on his ODI debut. He picked up the wicket of Temba Bavuma and had Aiden Markram dropped at slip on 2, with David Warner wrong-footed, after finding his outside edge with a superb legbreak. Markram made Australia pay, plundering 102 not out off 74 balls.

Australia will continue to experiment with their line-up in the final two games. They hope to have Cameron Green and Spencer Johnson return for at least one game each but neither will be risked if they are not quite right.

"Hopefully Greeny will be able to play maybe the last game," Marsh said. "I'm unsure how many more days he has got with the new concussion protocols. But we certainly won't be taking any risks with that kind of stuff. And Spencer is hopefully tracking well to play in one of those two games. Again, he is early in his international career, and we've got to look after him. Hamstrings are something you can't really rush back but hopefully, he is fit for one of the last few games and we can get a look at him."