A Testing Masterclass

There is a lot to be learned from the way the South African Cricket Team has approached their latest Test series in Australia.

Ranked number 1 in the world, the team led by Graeme Smith arrived Down Under aiming to be the only team in recent memory to beat Australia on their own turf twice in a row. The last series ended 2-1 in favour of Smith’s men back in 2008, the beginning of the end of Australia’s prolonged era of dominance.

That it was followed by a reverse 1-2 back at Home, inflicted unexpectedly by Ponting’s new young brigade (marking the debut of young Cummins), may have taken a bit of sheen off their achievements. These two teams have set the standard over the years, with their 3-test affairs always providing plenty of fodder for test purists. Rarely have they played out a boring aimless draw, with such rare results often going down to last overs of the series.

An analysis of South Africa’s slightly unusual performance in this series might go a long way in explaining what the best teams of each era must possess in order to stay at the top. It could be a lesson for previously-ranked teams like England and India, too, and it is made all the more resolute by the fact that no team is ever going to dominate world cricket like Australia did. South Africa’s current dominance does not smack of arrogance, ruthlessness or mad brilliance- you’d be hard pressed to call them dominant ether. In fact, if there was ever the belief that no. 1 teams are the ones that dominate at home, South Africa have perished such myths. Not only are they ordinary for a top-ranked team at home (thanks to the all-around conditions), they consistently give away a test to most touring teams. But their Away record is right up there with the Australians and West Indians of era past, seldom losing a series and often winning them (Australia, England, West Indies, New Zealand). They are yet to conquer the subcontinent, yes, but that is down to the lesser number of tours scheduled for them compared to the more eye-pleasing and ‘popular’ teams.

If there was ever a team that built its march to where they belong over a long period of time, it is South Africa. Even during Australia’s era, they were the only team that challenged them consistently in all forms of the game. They weren’t a team that went through massive lows, unlike India and Pakistan. Their lack of sustained dominance and apparent imperfections at the top (ICC failures) provide a more relatable and endearing picture of how a best team in a sport should ideally be.

South Africa came to Australia in 2012, with the ranking on the line, thanks to some effective away performances by Australia after a disastrous Ashes series last year. Fresh from a series win in England, with Australia pumped up from a 4-0 mauling of India at home, clearly, world order was restored back to the only two teams that make overseas tours matter.

Aussie rules ball at Brisbane

First Test, Brisbane

The first test at Brisbane was a typically brutal performance by both teams, setting the stage amidst a rain-soaked ground. If South Africa thought they had struck the first blow by amassing 450 runs with both their best test batters scoring centuries again, Australia hit back with their own 550+ score- proving that they weren’t in any mood to be bullied into submission by flat pitches.

Advantage- Australia. After a shaky second innings wobble by South Africa, both teams ended with a rare draw. One got a feeling Australia were setting their prey up for a kill, circling them, with Clarke leading the charge.

Like a boxing match, though, the timing of an assault had to be perfect. Too early, and a team would be left with nothing for the final test. Too late, and the tension could be an equal opponent.

 Block, Save, Survive

Second Test, Adelaide Oval

Australia decided to go for the all-out kill during the 2nd test at Adelaide. Another 550 in the first innings, led by another Clarke double, set the stage for Australia’s better-operating pace attack to cut South Africa’s edgy middle order down to shreds. A weak first innings effort by the South Africans, dominated by Faf Du Plessis’s solid debut 78, was followed by a quick 260 by Australia- giving themselves 2 days to bowl a shaky South African side out.

And then, it was time for the usual South African miracle. As much as they’ve been labeled Chokers in ODI cricket, their test teams have consistently pulled out rabbits from the hat, turning hopeless situations around against the best teams- making for the ultimate spectacle in Test Cricket- a battle of survival and guts.

Faf Du Plessis proved that he was more than just the new Duminy of South African Test Cricket. An innings of endurance and tremendous skill blunted everything an exhausted Siddle and Hilfenhaus had- the same bowlers that had ripped a spineless India into pieces a year ago. South Africa, by now, were so utterly outplayed in both tests- but still found themselves at 0-0 after 2 games. That might go down as their hallmark- their ability to absorb and survive, despite not being anywhere close to their best in alien conditions. Surely, the southpaw had taken enough of a beating, only seconds away from wilting for good- down for the count after much punishment.

An African Story. The End.

Third Test, WACA Perth

But, like a fighter biding his time, riding the storm and working to tire the opponent out- just like a Chanderpaul innings centered around grinding the opposition out, riding the first few overs of pace and swing, before launching into a well-planned clinical innings of frustrating solidity- The South African Cricket team were waiting to lunge. 

With Australia’s entire bowling attack retired hurt after throwing the kitchen sink at them for 2 matches, it was time for South Africa to push themselves into the corner once again in order to come out fighting. It was that man Faf again, saving them the blushes in the first innings before an out-of-sorts Steyn brought Perth to life, destroying a confused Australia against the ropes. A second innings masterclass by Amla and AB then made sure that their team don’t lose the test, or the series- and by winning just 4 sessions all series, the South Africans were on their way to another series victory Down Under- once an achievement unheard of in World Cricket.

If there was ever any doubt about the philosophy behind the next-to-superhuman ability of the legendary Rocky Balbao to absorb punishment before falling back on strengths, South Africa’s tour of Australia 2012 (and their 1-0 victory) should perish those doubts.

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