October 28, 2016

The Australian aura we never thought would shatter

In the early 2000s, South African fans couldn't imagine a world where Australia didn't pummel their side. But they live in it today

Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer brought your bowling attack down to its knees before the middle order delivered the knockout punch © Getty Images

In the Christmas break of 2001, my family and I holidayed in the Cederberg, a remote wilderness area about two and a bit hours' drive north of Cape Town. We rented a cottage at the foot of a gravel pass and spent long, lazy days with our three young sons splashing about in the nearby rock pools at the foot of our veranda.

The cottage had no television, radio reception was erratic and the nearest newspaper - invariably a day or two old - could only be found if you were prepared to slog 60 or 70 dusty kilometres back down the valley. At the time, the South Africans, captained by Shaun Pollock, were struggling their way across Australia. It was a nuisance - but, let's be honest, oddly convenient - not to have to follow them too closely.

One day in early January we decided to escape the inland heat. We bundled the children into their car seats and headed for the soft, misty seascapes of the Namaqualand coast. Out of the mountains, radio reception improved. We tuned in just in time to hear about Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer putting the brutal finishing touches to yet another Aussie victory.

This was in Sydney, the third Test of the series, and they duly won by ten wickets. They had taken the first Test, in Adelaide, by 246 runs and won by nine wickets to seal the series in Melbourne. Despite protestations to the contrary, the bravado of young men, South Africa didn't really come close to winning.

In our heart of hearts, we all knew they never would.

Damien Martyn on his way to a hundred at the SCG, 2001-02 © Getty Images

There was nothing easygoing about the way in which the Australian side of that vintage approached victory. They softened you up for three or four days, rattled about in your head, and then administered the knockout blow.

This was not a bad South African side. The Aussies, though, were enviably complete, with Damien Martyn batting at six (he scored a first-innings century in Sydney, after Hayden and Langer had started the match with an opening stand of 219) and Adam Gilchrist at seven. After that came four bowlers, including Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Here was the perfectly proportioned side.

For some reason, I remember that early January morning surprisingly clearly. Driving west through the desert scrubland, savouring the vast emptiness, the children fast asleep in the back on the car, I thought that Australian cricket was so preternaturally strong that this was how it would always be. The South Africans, with their pluck and threadbare optimism, would pretend to believe they could take Australia but they couldn't, not really.

When Western Australia scored 600 against the South Africans in a warm-up game and then the tourists lost by five wickets to an Australia A side at the beginning of the one-day series that followed the Tests, you suddenly understood something about the Aussie cricketing empire. Here was an imperium with reserve armies you didn't know they had. There was something frighteningly eternal to their strength and depth.

This is a myth, of course, we know that now. Things even out in the long cycles of decline and fall and the South Africans go into the first Test early next month with genuine rather than mock belief.

South African teams of the period spoke of giving a fight to the Australians, but they couldn't match their words with actions © Getty Images

One of the reasons why such myths persisted for longer here than anywhere else is because South African cricket had been readmitted to the world game for only ten years when Pollock took the team to Australia in 2001-02. South African fans - and journalists - didn't have the luxury of long comparisons to fall back on, comparisons going back, say 20, or even 30 years. To us - to me - this frightening strength was unlikely to change because we never had the benefit of long, uninterrupted comparisons.

From the vantage point of the present, though, Australian cricket looks unaccountably vulnerable, mortal. Watching their ODI side being drubbed 5-0 here in South Africa a month ago, I was reminded of nothing so much as a South African side of yore, almost to the point of caricature. There was precious little variation in the right-arm-over bowling, and a curious diffidence hung about them. They had no big turning spinner and there was a certain iffiness about the batting. Things pretty much seem to have come full circle.

The liberation of knowing you have achieved something worthwhile in the same place before will give the South Africans strength ahead of the first Test. They have won in Perth on both previous trips to Australia and you do rather wonder about Cricket Australia's wisdom of putting them there again.

This is not to make any rash predictions about the series. What I do know is that somewhere along the line, thanks to South Africa and others, like England in 2005, the myth of Australian invincibility got rudely shattered. It has never been quite the same again.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Simon on October 30, 2016, 3:39 GMT

    South Africa play each time in Perth for a few reasons. Perth has a large South African ex-pat population, As it is now near impossible to get teams playing 5 Tests against each other, especially Southern Hemisphere teams, the earlier in the season you need to play, the more likely it'll be in the west where the weather will be less unpredictable. I know promoters want to play up recent results and that's fair enough, but the last few years have shown that the home team has the best shot at winning, even when team abilities are miles apart. That's simply because most tours are hit and run now.

  • cornga4113811 on October 29, 2016, 10:03 GMT

    Ah yes, them were the days me laddo...And they will come around soon enuff again

  • Amol on October 29, 2016, 2:17 GMT

    India beat Aussies in 2001, England did it in 2005, between those two series, was this memorable series by India in Australia, in 2004, where India were able to hold their own against the supremely talented Aussies, if not beat them.

  • sfsdf on October 29, 2016, 0:08 GMT

    fact is that aussie team was pidge and warne those are two of the greatest bowlers ever and they were the ones who dominated on the pitch and in the minds of that SA side, it was only with those two gone and a struggling brett lee suddenly expected to lead the attack that SA dominated.

    I mean cmon people dream about beating a side lead by a woefully out of form brett lee and nathan hauritz in place of the best leggie ever?

  • Coenraad on October 28, 2016, 22:59 GMT

    When Pollock took his side to Australia they were rated the #1 team in the world. With good reason: they had beaten India, in India (2000), a feat the Australian greats only achieved much later.

    The main difference between the teams that beat India away, and got humiliated in Australia is quite obvious: the captain. (Quick! Hide the woman and children!) Hansie Cronje had the ability to read a game, and to turn minor mistakes of the opposition into huge victories. No Protea captain since then comes close. Shaun Pollock is a great guy, the kind I'd love my daughter to marry some day. But a test captain he never should have been...

  •   Dale Gonsalves on October 28, 2016, 14:02 GMT

    " for aussie fans it was so special that we beat the windies in 1995 when they still had so many greats in the setup."

    Wow. Stretching the truth eh ? World Beaters were Stuart Williams, Jimmy Adams, Keith Autherton, Courtney Browne, Winston Benjamin and Kenneth Benjamin ??

    While Richie Richardson, Ambrose and Walsh were still in the team, BC Lara was far from being a great at that time and Carl Hooper was as usual not living up to his potential.

    The team that Australia beat in 1995 was nowhere near our best

  • Anees on October 28, 2016, 10:47 GMT

    @JOHN_BNSA 2008 SA won first two tests of series to be 2-0 up going into the 3rd test. So the series wasn't alive in the second test? 2012 it was 0-0 going into the 3rd and final test so that series was dead?

    @Tinker does it hurt Australian fans when Aus couldn't be competitive against the the South African team of the 60s? No it doesnt. After a 20 year drought of international sport it took nearly 20 years to get into a world beating position.

    It is a great article and I have to say that even though we have beaten Aus in Aus, SA cannot beat them in SA

  • john on October 28, 2016, 8:58 GMT

    Hold on tinker, that's like looking at pontings average in the post warne McGrath era.

  • sfsdf on October 28, 2016, 6:17 GMT

    It must hurt SA fans that they never actually won a test series vs the all time great aussie team but rather had to wait until the greats were gone or well past their best, for aussie fans it was so special that we beat the windies in 1995 when they still had so many greats in the setup.

  • Vinod on October 28, 2016, 5:58 GMT

    wonderful article, several times I too had the same impression about the aus cricket set up and thought were unbeatable. I guess this goes round in cycles, but one thing is sure-aus will always be in the top 3. The thing that makes Aus cricket so tough and skillful is their wonderful FC structure backed up by the state leagues, throws up talented youngsters into a tough crucible and the finished product is generally world class. i wish india would follow this-///As a neutral , am eagerly awaiting the test series-hopefully will see supreme skills on display and a series to savour....want to see tests decided on the last hour of last day....test cric rox

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