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What a day! I don’t remember enjoying a day’s cricket as much since Laxman and Dravid stuck it to Australia at Eden Gardens in 2001.
In South Africa, we tend to exaggerate both the lows and the highs (and not just on the sports field). After last week’s fantastic chase at Perth, many here indulged in typical hyperbole, calling it South Africa’s ‘best ever’ Test win. That’s way over the top – what about the series-clinching Day 5 at Edgbaston only 6 months ago? Or Sydney 1994? Or Faisalabad in 1997, our first series win in Asia? Not to mention quite a few matches in the 1960s and earlier.
If we win this Melbourne Test (or next week’s at Sydney), it will instantly become our best ever win - our first series win in Australia. If Melbourne and Sydney both turn out to be draws, then I’ll agree - Perth is our best ever. And today went an awfully long way to making a Melbourne draw possible, indeed likely.
As everybody knows, Australia is South Africa’s bete noire. I won’t rehearse our losses here (nor our ties….). That’s why the ‘438’ ODI was our best cricket moment of the decade, at least up to 2008. Our repeated losses to Australia are so painful partly because they are usually better at being South African than we ourselves are. That is, they’re better at the ‘braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet’ thing, the sports-mad outdoor life produced by our mix of Anglo-American colonial influence and pioneer-farmer mythology. It may be just one way to be South African, but it’s still a very popular one.
In this culture, prowess on the field far outweighs anything in the lab, at the theatre or on the bestseller lists. So being second best to Australia in cricket and rugby has been hugely disappointing. We couldn’t even beat them at football, our most popular sport but probably only number nine or ten over there. (We managed a draw.) Australia even exports more proteas than we do. That’s our national flower, dammit!!
So day 3 was fantastic. Everything went right for South Africa, everything went wrong for Australia. Okay, everything but one - they didn’t lose a wicket in their short batting stint. But never has Australia looked so thoroughly disorganised, so hang-dog and so shell-shocked on a cricket field, certainly never against South Africa.
It was all the sweeter because of where we started the day. South African cricket is famous for never giving up without a fight to the last ball, and for batting deep into the tail. And it’s also famous for doing what happened yesterday - digging itself deep into the sort of hole that creates opportunities to display these two qualities. So today wasn’t a total surprise.
But there was also a sense today of something different, something new.
Partly it’s because the star today was a black player in only his second test, and in the side unquestionably on merit. Even though black players have performed superbly for South Africa for more than a decade, it’s still argued by some that affirmative action helped them into the side in the first place. Not Duminy.
Partly it’s because none of the four players who added 261 runs today came entirely out of the South African cricket establishment. Harris and Steyn had the advantages of growing up white but went to middle-ranking schools, as did Duminy, while Ntini emerged from a remote poverty-stricken area before his bowling won him a scholarship to an elite school.
But in the end it felt different because we were the ones with a ‘system’, replacing a stalwart like Prince with a reserve like Duminy while Andrew Symonds hopped about and Shane Watson fielded for Lee but couldn’t bowl for him. We were the ones with skills, scoring at a good rate while the Aussies dropped catches and conceded overthrows. And we were the ones with confidence, taking advantage of Aussie disarray to bat them right out of the match and probably the series, while they (dare I say it?) ‘choked’, unable to ram home the huge edge they started with this morning.
In fact, we were the Australians out there today. And perhaps, maybe, possibly, in a little more than a week South Africa will be the new Australia – number one in the world, on merit.
Footnote: braaivleis = barbeque, and 'Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and chevrolet' was a very popular advertising jingle in South Africa in the 1980s, which captured a certain ethos....
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