The best Test series in Australia for decades

2009-01-09 00:00

AT the end of the thrilling Sydney Test match an exhausted visiting captain put his arms around his undefeated partner and embraced him in the sort of hug usually seen at airports.

For all sorts of reasons it was a stirring and significant moment. Graeme Smith’s weary but happy response to a shattering setback reflected the spirit of the series and the cheerful mood in the South African camp.

Mickey Arthur had already laughed about Morne Morkel’s unexpected elevation, explaining that the beanpole was always comparing himself to Matthew Hayden. Of course, the atmosphere was tense in those final minutes as the storm approached, the light faded and the clock ticked.

Television cameras kept flashing across to the visitors’ bench where the coach was observed chuckling nervously one minute and covering his eyes the next. By the way the thunder continued rolling around without ever delivering its contents. But the overall impression was of a team at ease with itself, a team committed to victory but unencumbered with earnestness let alone zealotry.

Mickey Arthur’s reaction to the extraordinary events was widely shared. No one at the ground could quite believe what was happening in those frenetic minutes as the tourists tried to escape the noose. Gradually the impossible became conceivable and suddenly it was almost within grasp.

And the exchanges did not follow a predictable course with batsmen defending grimly and bowlers steaming. Nor was any resentment detected. After all Australia did not send down a single bumper to their wounded opponent. Ntini copped plenty as did Dale Steyn but Smith was spared.

Perhaps it was not an instruction so much as an unconscious salute. Towards the end everybody seemed to realise they were caught up in a match whose result was no longer the main consideration, a contest that aroused the human spirit and united two fierce rivals.

South Africa were glorious in defeat but were also outplayed. The match was not lost on the final day. To the contrary, the visitors almost defied the odds by almost saving it. Nor were the dismissals of Jaques Kallis and Mark Boucher critical to the result.

These things happen in cricket. Kallis played a poor shot and faced the consequences. Moreover the third umpire made the correct decision. Over the last few years almost every low catch reviewed off the field has appeared dubious. Common sense and cricketing experience may indicate that the catch was clean, but replays were rarely clearcut and almost every time the batsman was reprieved. Injustice was done and bad blood was the consequence.

Clearly officials have taken this into account and nowadays all concerned use their wits.

Boucher’s decision was a stinker, but that often occurs on the final day with the ball keeping low, bowlers on edge and umpires slowing down. Five of the batsmen were dismissed leg before and four of the verdicts were correct. At such times it is easily forgotten that several appeals were rejected. And the Australians did not overplay their hand.

Twelve months ago they had appealed vengefully and Rahul Dravid had been the victim of a much worse verdict. South Africa ought not to complain about anything but rather salute a valiant side and a sporting contest. Ricky Ponting’s declaration was spot on.

Ultimately South Africa paid a price for playing loose cricket at the start of the contest.

Admittedly it was a good toss to win but a team on top of its game could have overcome that.

Dropped catches and mixed bowling cost them dearly as the hosts built a formidable total.

Smith’s injury was another setback and it took considerable fortitude to fight back so that a draw was 10 balls away. Australia lost four wickets in their second innings and were the better team. South Africa were beaten fair and square.

Now thoughts turn towards the rematch on African soil. In between the teams meet in numerous brief affairs. Australia have plenty of fresh players available and will be hard to beat these next few weeks.

The Test series will be another matter. South Africa have a settled side and the only problem arising lies with the fading form of Makhaya Ntini.

The selectors must hope that his challengers are soon ready to let the veteran enjoy the fruits of his endeavours. Incidentally there is a campaign starting down under to find a name for the trophy contested by these sides, and “The Ntini-McGrath Trophy” is the front-runner.

Contrastingly the Australian team could contain several changes as the selectors search for the right combination. Matthew Hayden has been dropped for the 50-over matches and seems to be on his way out. Phil Jaques and Philip Hughes are pressing hard.

The bowling is also a worry and Stuart Clarke and Ben Hilfenhaus will be added to the list. Its hard to see Andrew Symonds, Shane Watson, Brett Lee or Hayden playing Test cricket again.

Anyhow it was the best Test series played in Australia for decades. It was also a great advertisement for an unfashionable but enduring version of the game, and for both adversaries.

•International cricket correspondent Peter Roebuck is based in the KZN midlands and currently covering South Africa’s tour of Australia.

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