Chokers no more
History is written by the victors and this year South Africa have made so many alterations to the accepted version that the past is now irrelevant. Their brilliant chase of 414, orchestrated by their two youngest batsmen, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy, proved again that no target is out of reach these days and that despite what Australia wanted to believe, South Africa hold no demons from past failures.
They are two matches from potentially climbing the biggest mountain in world cricket. Apparently, 2008 is the international year of the frog and it could well finish with South Africa poised to leap over Australia and into the top position on the world Test rankings. Wins in the remaining two Tests in Melbourne and Sydney will get them there and on the evidence displayed at the WACA, and with Australia to visit South Africa in February, it will be only a matter of time.
The key difference in this South African side compared to the older versions is their self-belief. Australia have daunted South Africa so much over the years that had Mitchell Johnson's eight-wicket haul come in a previous series the team's confidence would have been shattered. But the calmness of the captain Graeme Smith and the coach Mickey Arthur has rubbed off on this unit and the way they fought back to restrict Australia to 319 in the second innings was the key.
"There's only really one statement that stands out in the game," Smith said. "If we didn't rock up on the day after Mitchell's spell and bowl as well as we did, put that statement in place that we're here and we're not going away, then we wouldn't be sitting here today."
Smith was the hero when his team chased down 281 to win at Edgbaston this year, which gave them their first series victory in England for 43 years. He again made a century in this triumph, the second-highest chase of all time, which he was still struggling to comprehend after the match.
"We've had such an incredible last year and a half," Smith said. "Victories in the subcontinent, in England, a really big victory at Edgbaston, which was very emotional. But I think the emotions that we felt through this game, where we were and the way we came back, everyone has contributed so from that perspective it's got to be a great Test win for South Africa. It's got to go up there with my best wins ever."
Smith was underplaying the significance of the victory slightly. A visiting South African journalist said the win would rank alongside any of the nation's sporting achievements and it's hard to disagree. The enormity of the chase was one thing but defying the trend between the two sides made it all the more exhilarating. South Africa's most recent two wins against Australia had come in dead rubbers in Durban in 2001-02 and Centurion in 1996-97. Only once since readmission had they prevailed in Australia.
It was the perfect chase, every bit as impressive as India's 387 in Chennai last week, not the least because it was away from home against the world's top-ranked team. It began with Smith and Hashim Amla building a platform, continued with de Villiers and Jacques Kallis reeling the target to within sight and culminated in de Villiers and Duminy completing the order. It was so well calculated that it even allowed de Villiers to reach his century in the dying stages and Duminy to finish with an invaluable unbeaten 50 on debut.
Both men thoroughly deserved the milestones and it completed their remarkable journey from the Under-11 tournaments they used to play against each other. They have taken different paths to the top, de Villiers being rushed into the side at 20 and being tried in just about every position over 47 Tests; and Duminy waiting on the fringes and watching enviously until a thumb injury to Ashwell Prince opened up a spot in this match.
When de Villiers was last seen in Australia in 2005-06 he was being tested as an opener and made a couple of promising half-centuries but was still learning on the job. He has matured immensely since then and, much like the string of brilliant catches he took during the match, he wasn't about to let this game slip through his hands. There was no streakiness and apart from a drive that just cleared mid-on, barely any half-chances.
He had come to the crease with 235 runs still required and but the target wasn't weighing on his mind. Small goals were set and partnerships were built, first with Kallis and then with Duminy. The century took care of itself and he celebrated enthusiastically when it came, not so much because of his score but because he had helped his team set up what by then was a certain victory.
"It was never really an issue if I get a hundred or not against the Aussies," de Villiers said. "It was just important to get through today. It's more important to win a Test match over here than get my own hundred. But it's done and it's great to have gotten a hundred and win the Test match in one game. It's an amazing feeling and it's a dream come true for me."
At 24, the men are younger than all of Australia's players bar Peter Siddle, who was born in the same year. That it has taken South Africa several years to build this side should not be lost on Australia, who are battling to balance struggling stars with new men still finding their feet. Australia have written the script between these sides for so long that it is hard to imagine a new author. Within the next fortnight, South Africa could write their own names into the history books.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo