Dead-rubber syndrome hits SA
South Africa have done some fabulous impersonations of previous Australian teams while winning this series, but over the past four days they have also copied the dead-rubber syndrome that afflicted sides led by Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor. It's a strange complaint, picking at an outfit for losing intensity when the contest has been sealed, as if it diminishes what has already been achieved.
Players are judged on what happens when the contest matters most and throughout the first two games South Africa dominated the major moments. They have been the best team with an outstanding collection of performers, but with the prize sealed they have slackened slightly and have spent most of the time in Sydney trying to catch up, hold on and dodge unpredictably-bouncing balls.
Like a game of rock-paper-scissors, both participants need to have a chance of winning to retain the competitive edge. The loser is desperate to move closer, but the victor cares much less. The South Africans celebrated reaching the peak and were worn down by their exertions.
At the SCG they have had the worst of the pitch and the least energy. "Having the series already won was a big factor," the coach Mickey Arthur said. "You can feel in the dressing room the tension is probably not the same."
The way they have fought with the bat has been impressive, especially with Mark Boucher on the third day and Hashim Amla and Neil McKenzie late on the fourth, but in the field they were just waiting for Australia's second-innings declaration. There was a sloppiness and sluggishness that was not on display in previous matches. It has been a busy tour and maybe the visitors were being clever, saving their energy for saving the match.
If they achieve a draw the result will be fulfilling and significant. Not like winning a Test while chasing 414, or sealing a nine-wicket success after being headed for defeat on the second day, but valuable in showing the world they will not be beaten. Winning is not always the only thing and surviving through day five on this surface would be another statement to hopeful countries that consider themselves challengers for the top billing.
"We're looking at saving the Test before we win it," Arthur said. "There are a group of guys there who don't want to give an inch. The guys have given their all and been absolutely amazing for the past 14 days, and none of us want to lose the last Test in a dead rubber." South Africa did that in England and Arthur said the defeat took some gloss from the series success.
The early exit of the replacement opener Morne Morkel was another obstacle to add to the absence of Graeme Smith, the injured captain who has a plaster cast creeping up his left arm. They were effectively 2 for 2 in the second over chasing an improbable 376 for victory, but the important final measure will be the number of wickets left. They have eight remaining - Smith will not walk out unless there is an over or two to negotiate - and another three sessions to survive after McKenzie and Amla took the score to 1 for 62.
|South Africa have been unchanged throughout the burst of three back-to-back Tests and this week have found the load heavy. Having brought in fresh additions, Australia will wish the series was still alive. It isn't, so they are looking to the future and trying to win their first Test against a major nation since this time 12 months ago|
The local selectors have got the quick side of the team right while continuing their mistake at the top with Hayden. There will be times, maybe even on the final day, when the young attacks is unable to cover up its errors, but so far the bowlers have been fresh, enthusiastic and challenging.
South Africa have been unchanged throughout the burst of three back-to-back Tests and this week have found the load heavy. Having brought in fresh additions, Australia will wish the series was still alive. It isn't, so they are looking to the future and trying to win their first Test against a major nation since this time 12 months ago. A victory here would convince them the direction is clearer after four months of clouds. If it happens it is a first step back, not a total recovery.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo