All-round Protea display cause for celebration

2008-12-23 00:00

The events that unfolded at the Waca on Sunday have given us another reason to celebrate this festive season.

The Proteas’ victory was momentous and will be etched in the memories of South African cricket fans forever.

Not only was it a record-breaking performance, but it was also a true Test match in every sense.

The Proteas’ performance had all the right match-winning ingredients. The senior players absorbed much of the pressure and allowed the younger, less experienced players the chance to play their natural games. Makhaya Ntini was the perfect example of this as he filled the role South Africa has been waiting for him to take again. He shouldered the attack and responded brilliantly every time Graeme Smith called on him when Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel were not getting it right.

In the batting department, Smith and Jacques Kallis led from the front and admirably absorbed the pressure from the Australian bowlers, allowing Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy to express themselves, which they did superbly.

It was a true team performance in every way. Paul Harris held his nerve under enormous pressure from the Australian batsmen, while Mark Boucher did a tidy job behind the stumps and showed great leadership batting with the tail-enders in the first innings. The only player who missed out was Neil McKenzie, but Smith has spoken of the vital role he plays off the field in motivating the team.

The challenge that coach Micky Arthur and his team will have now is sustaining the momentum going into the Boxing Day Test match in Melbourne. Having Duncan Fletcher on board is a huge asset for the Proteas. Smith has already spoken of Fletcher’s invaluable technical contribution to the Proteas’ preparation. Fletcher is not a man for the limelight, which was evident when the television cameras captured the celebrations in the South African dressing room. Fletcher prefers working behind the scenes and he was probably already hard at work on plans for the next two Test matches.

Australia have much to think about, but I have to admit I enjoyed seeing them under pressure. We do not see it often and it does not sit well with them. Two of their seasoned stalwarts are not performing, Matthew Hayden with the bat and Brett Lee with the ball. Their lack of form put tremendous pressure on the rest of the team.

Mitchell Johnson impressed with his 11-wicket haul, but he was required to bowl too many overs and this showed in South Africa’s second innings. Ponting needed him to strike again but his pace was down from 145 km/h to the low 130s.

It is not often the Australian selectors have difficult decisions to make with the possible dropping or pensioning off of players who have served the country with distinction.

Spinner Jason Krejza, who took eight wickets for Australia on debut, is the only casualty so far after picking up just a single wicket in the Perth Test match, but a squad of 13 has been named and further changes could be made.

The Australians are excellent front-runners, but it will be interesting to see how they perform coming from behind. The stage is set for a classic in front of the huge crowds in Melbourne and I cannot wait.

• Neil Johnson, a former Natal, Zimbabwe and Hampshire all-rounder, now lives and coaches cricket in Pietermaritzburg.

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