No-mercy Proteas 1 match from history

Faf du Plessis (Gallo)
Faf du Plessis (Gallo)

Cape Town - If South Africa and Australia played out draws more often, you could say with more justification and enthusiasm that the presently cock-a-hoop Proteas simply need a stalemate at the Wanderers from Friday to Tuesday to carve out a special new place in the history books.

That result in the fourth and final Test would suffice, indeed, for Faf du Plessis and company to become the only one of eight post-isolation SA sides to beat the now crisis-rocked Baggy Greens on our own soil, and also first since Ali Bacher’s legendary 1969/70 powerhouses - a gap of some 48 years.

But these great rivals seldom do draws, and especially in South Africa in post-apartheid times, where you have to go back as many as 21 bilateral Tests, to March 1994 at Kingsmead, for the last one.

So trends strongly suggest that there will be a winner at the Bullring, making for an even more inviting prospect in many ways as the Proteas seek to either defend their 2-1 lead or even put a cherry on top with a 3-1 final outcome against their controversy-stricken foes.

Just how mentally prepared, motivated and organised will the Aussies possibly be, given that the confirmed International Cricket Council-imposed penalty of a one-match ban for their captain, Steve Smith, and a lingering global focus on Newlands ball-tamperer-in-chief Cameron Bancroft, may well not be the last of any censuring?

There is still speculation Down Under that both Smith and deputy David Warner could cop anything up to the extreme of conduct-related life bans from Cricket Australia, who have launched their own probe into the sensational events of Saturday - and which could yet drag other key personalities in their dressing room like head coach Darren Lehmann into peril.

The whole rumpus made for an extraordinary fourth day's play in the third Test on Sunday, but crucially with the home team keeping their eyes firmly and commendably on the task at hand under the unorthodox circumstances to register a crushing 322-run triumph.

READ: Scandal: Oz team core may be ripped apart

If Australian team anxiety and confusion was already, and obviously, well-developed before the start of play - the equivalent of starting a morning with a dreadful hangover, only worse - the Proteas were models of own composure and focussed aggression.

First they slapped the Aussie bowling around to the tune of an additional 135 runs, which ensured that the distracted visitors would have to chase down a record fourth-innings target of 430 for a massively unlikely win.

But if that was a dominant period adding liberal doses of salt to multi-pronged wounds, deeper pain for the team under the acting leadership of wicketkeeper Tim Paine (Smith and Warner were asked not to front the cause, turning rank-and-file troops) was to follow.

In a third session marked by a near-relentless turning of screws in the field, South Africa engineered the pack-of-cards collapse that commentator and leg-spinning legend Shane Warne said he feared might occur if one or two wickets fell in rapid succession.

Remarkably grabbing all 10 wickets in that period (from a tea-time 47/0), it was characterised by lanky paceman Morne Morkel producing arguably the most destructive spell of hostility of his entire career, in his 158th bowling innings and probably third-last as he retires after the series.

Especially effective when bombing the Australian batsmen from around the wicket, Morkel ruthlessly capitalised on the vagaries of fourth-day bounce, seizing five scalps in the space of almost exactly 10 eventful overs and not quite five of his own.

There were some absolute snorters in the course of his bombardment, possibly enough to make some observers rue that he didn’t as regularly produce such sustained venom long before the advent of his 34th year.

Still, he finished with career-best match figures of nine for 110 - just one more dismissal would have earned him a maiden 10-wicket Test haul - and the unbridled joy of his personal celebration of the triumph was lavishly applauded by a sizeable Newlands crowd in the city where he now has a home.

"Faffie asked the boys to leave it all out there this afternoon," Morkel said as he accepted the player-of-the-match mantle.

The beanpole helped restore some much-needed sunlight to the game of cricket in other respects, too.

Long renowned as one of the more gentlemanly figures of fast bowling, he was very quickly up to strike rival Mitchell Starc - when the tail-end batsman was struck a nasty blow on the side of the helmet, various parts of it exploding to the turf - in the most genuine of "are you OK?" type of initiatives.

It just seemed such a civilising, spirits-lifting event after the widespread rancour of this series so far.

Still, what an unreservedly dreadful weekend to have been an Australian national cricketer.

Is there any chance they can quell the chaos sufficiently to bounce back for a series-squaring triumph at the Wanderers at almost indecently short notice, considering all that has gone down?

Right now, it seems a desperately long shot.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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