Cape Town – “They run like a pack of dogs around you.”
Those were the words of Faf du Plessis, now the Proteas’ captain, back in March 2014 during the pivotal final Test against Australia at Newlands, where the Baggy Greens clinched the series 2-1 to ensure a less than fairy-tale end to then-skipper Graeme Smith’s illustrious career.
Batsman Du Plessis had made the mistake – though that is probably a subjective observation – of picking up the ball soon after a delivery and handing it back to the bowler.
Instead of a “thank you” from paceman Mitchell Johnson, he got a volley of abuse from an advancing troop of Aussies … not unsurprisingly including a certain David Warner, freshly involved in a filmed flashpoint outside the dressing rooms in the just-completed first Test of the 2017/18 series at Kingsmead.
Australia duly completed the task on Monday of snaring the remaining South African wicket – that of Quinton de Kock, the SA rival at the heart of the Warner contretemps – to prevail by 118 runs.
Central to the tourists’ Durban triumph, many would be quite entitled to argue, was that the “pack of dogs” phenomenon came to the fore, to telling effect, in the Aussie ranks all over again.
Facing a home team undercooked in several respects after a couple of key Proteas players (including Du Plessis) had raced against time to be fit, and with certain others not exactly laden with batting confidence at present, it seems in retrospect that Australia made a particularly conscious bid to be bellicose in the Test.
Helped by the fact that the Proteas weren’t exactly backed by a large, partisan home crowd at the problematic venue – where they have now won only once in their last eight Tests, including six defeats – the Aussies got under the skins of several opponents to a greater extent than may have been budgeted for.
They traditionally turn ever more snarling as they get a scent of blood, or expose an underbelly (certainly from first-innings evidence, their opponents’ batting).
The testosterone-laced actions of Mitchell Starc (fairly prolific sledging of novice Theunis de Bruyn), Nathan Lyon (petty, dropping of the ball onto or right next to a prostrate AB de Villiers) and Warner (hardly a first-time, close-up confrontation with a cricketing foe) at Kingsmead somehow seemed a means to a successful end, however disapproving some observers may have been in etiquette terms.
The Aussies have a time-honoured hallmark of seeking “mental disintegration” in rival players and have seen fruits in many instances – sometimes being pretty close to career-wreckers in certain cases.
But some of the better South African teams against them – and let’s remember there have been a few, including quite recently – have also contained individuals with the strength of character to absorb the psychological bombardment, and even hand it back with some earnest.
Whatever the protestations from the Aussie camp that De Kock had said something “personal” to greatly rile Warner, and the slightly tongue-in-cheek nickname of “The Reverend” back home for his supposed new maturity behaviourally, the nuggety opening batsman clearly remains a naturally combustible, provocative player, seldom too far from any hint of aggro on the pitch.
Like it or not, you just sense that his stroppiness is a useful device when the Aussies are getting on top.
By comparison, there were periods of the first Test when South Africa looked a tad too passive, a little unsure of how to respond to Australian goading even when not too glaringly cowed by it.
It is not as though they are a renowned bunch of sissies: Kagiso Rabada is seldom shy of a word to a batsman, and he also roughed up Aussie pace enforcer Pat Cummins, while batting, with one nasty lifter into the armpit.
Credit inexperienced Aiden Markram, too, after his landmark, fighting and highly composed second innings of 143 for his insistence that Aussie sledging during his marathon vigil didn’t stray beyond any boundaries of acceptable decorum.
Clearly he overcame the “verbals” challenge, something that should stand him in good stead going forward in the series and serve as an example to others in his dressing room.
That said, Australia threw some quite painful leather in the first round.
For round two, we need to see some “wounded animal” from the Proteas, drawing a purposeful line in Port Elizabeth’s fine white sand.
Seconds out …
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