‘Miracle in Melbourne’: beginning of a journey to immortality?

2009-01-02 00:00

AMID all the celebrations, the back-slapping and the frankly light-headed speculation about the conquering heroes being the greatest South African cricket team of all time, the facts speak for themselves.

At 2.15 pm on day four of the first Test in Perth, the Proteas launched their second- innings pursuit of an apparently impossible target of 414 to win. Defeat seemed absolutely inevitable.

In the entire history of Test cricket, only one team had ever scored more runs in the fourth innings to win.

Soon after 3.30 pm on the second day of the second Test in Melbourne, South Africa had slumped to a pitiable 141 for six in their first innings, still a daunting 253 runs behind Australia.

The follow-on appeared inevitable and avoiding an emphatic defeat, probably inside four days, seemed impossible.

The historic series victory over Australia in Australia was far from a cakewalk for a vastly superior team. In reality, it was secured by two extraordinary fightbacks within 10 days.

Yes, they held all but one of their catches. Yes, the bowlers produced outstanding spells at crucial moments. And yes, the team has been exceptionally well served over the past two years:

1) by the effective administration of CEO Gerald Majola and his team at Cricket SA; 2) by the loyal, consistent selection of conveners Joubert Strydom and now Mike Procter; and 3) by the attentive and perceptive coaching of Mickey Arthur, most recently aided and abetted by the wisdom, knowledge and experience of Duncan Fletcher.

All this is true, but this unprecedented triumph was all the sweeter and more memorable for being carved in the granite of traditional South African qualities ... resilience, courage and guts.

Graeme Smith has shown the way, leading his team not only with the clear conviction of his captaincy but also the bludgeoning force of his strokeplay; and he is only 27 years old.

Other players have followed, travelling to Australia without fear and reducing the No.1-ranked team to the stunned shambles that subsided so quietly in Melbourne.

The heroics first of AB de Villiers in Perth, through his catching and his unbeaten 106 in the run chase, and then of Dale Steyn (10 wickets and 76 runs) and Jean-Paul Duminy (an epic 166) in Melbourne, will never be erased from the annals of SA cricket.

Yet, the greatest South African cricket team of all time? Perhaps not quite, maybe not yet.

It is now almost 39 years since the following South African side completed a 4-0 series victory over Australia:

Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow, Ali Bacher, Graeme Pollock, Lee Irvine, Denis Lindsay, Tiger Lance, Mike Procter, Peter Pollock, Pat Trimborn and John Traicos.

Four passing decades have not dimmed the remarkable talent of a team that was denied the chance to realise their potential on the international stage.

Graeme Smith’s squad have no such concerns. This group of South Africans are blessed with youth, exceptional talent and almost limitless opportunities to become even closer, to work even harder, to improve their performance yet further and to secure their futures in the process.

Today, as their well-deserved celebrations subside, their challenge is to see the “Miracle in Melbourne” not as the end of a long journey, but as only the beginning of an adventure that may yet lead to a sustained reign as the number-one-ranked Test team in the world and perhaps even an ICC World Cup victory in 2011, an adventure that may yet lead to them becoming recognised and immortalised as the greatest South African cricket team of all time.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby and general manager of SATV sport, and is involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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