The Australia-South Africa rivalry December 14, 2005

World-Cup drops and shark bait

South Africa and Australia grudgingly admit common characteristics - sledging, playing hard and mostly fair, a desperate desire to win, more sledging - but that's where the conciliatory handshakes end

Did Herschelle Gibbs really drop that thing? © Getty Images

The people most like you are usually the ones who are the most annoying. The similarities of fathers, as much as sons can loudly disagree, cause regular friction and top many personal lists for chief irritators and agitators ahead of like-minded siblings. For families, see sport. South Africa and Australia grudgingly admit common characteristics - sledging, playing hard and mostly fair, a desperate desire to win, more sledging - but that's where the conciliatory handshakes end.

Two countries that share no colonial bloodlines and wrestle for rule of cricket's southern hemisphere have instead bred their own bad blood. Unforgettable World Cup contests, rebel tours during Apartheid and Test controversies have been added to the lore and the verbal build-up to Friday's series-opener has been as animated as a boxing weigh-in. The sparring even extended to an ICC memo on improving behaviour after South Africa's problems with mental strength and their inability to deal with pressure were raised by Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Swift replies arrived from Graeme Smith, Pat Symcox and Daryll Cullinan.

The disrespect masks the appreciation for opponents who share similar values and expect Tests to be loud and sweaty. Complaints for over-appealing won't be an issue and until the autobiographies are published, only the stump microphones are likely to prevent what's said on the ground staying there. Smith is still reminded of how he broke the players' code when he transcribed quotes received while batting against Australia into a sports magazine.

"On the field we enjoyed facing South Africa because they played hard, didn't mind giving and taking verbal banter, and made an effort to get together and have a beer at the end of the day," Steve Waugh wrote in his autobiography. Waugh and Hansie Cronje would often bet each other $50 on the result of the game, not for the monetary prize that was never paid, but for the benefit of one-upmanship.

Had the cash changed hands, Waugh would have been fiscally ahead as Australia had a hold over South Africa that distracted and demoralised Cronje, who was a prominent figure in dramatic failures before his match-fixing demise. Cronje angrily thrust a stump through the umpire's door at Adelaide in 1997-98 after Australia secured a draw and the series with Mark Waugh scoring 115 and surviving a debatable hit-wicket appeal. However, his despair at the World Cup following a loss and a tie that booted them from the competition was far worse.

Brian McMillan whoops it up with Shane Warne's bunny, Daryll Cullinan © Getty Images

Thirty years earlier, Australia were the ones moping after being thumped 4-0 - the margins were 170 runs, an innings and 129, 307 and 323 - as part of South Africa's last Test act before their Apartheid isolation. One of Bill Lawry's few successes on that trip were the trivial delaying tactics to prevent Barry Richards, who was playing one of only four Tests, from becoming the first batsman in South Africa to score a century before lunch. While the western side of the Indian Ocean toasted their success as generations of players missed their international opportunities, the eastern nation had 24 years to wonder how and why.

Between the official Tests were two summers of rebel tours that threatened to ruin Australian cricket, as a player base already struggling following the retirements of Chappell, Lillee and Marsh was gutted by mercenaries chasing A$200,000 instead of national representation. Remembering the results - South Africa won both the 1985-86 and 1986-87 "Test" series 1-0 - is more difficult than forgetting the damage and spiteful political and personal exchanges.

South Africa returned to Australia for the 1992 World Cup and defeated the hosts by nine wickets with players such as Cronje, Donald and McMillan. The trio would form the competitive core of the South African side as it re-emerged and developed. Brian McMillan, a huge allrounder with a quick tongue, was a popular and frightening opponent and helped fuel the modern-day rivalry by telling Shane Warne that he would take him fishing and use him as "bait for the sharks". Another time, he walked into the Australia dressing-room carrying a pistol borrowed from a security guard as a prank.

Incidents between the two countries tend to be exaggerated and the McMillan anecdotes could have been fuelled like Waugh's "you just dropped the World Cup" to Herschelle Gibbs in 1999. Both players deny that it happened, but it doesn't dampen the legend.

Symcox expects more harsh words on this tour; Smith would be disappointed if he didn't receive any, and Warne would be happy to give some more work to South African psychologists. It all points to more feather-ruffling, brotherly elbowing and verbal intensity. Despite Malcolm Speed's bizarre intervention, both teams will find it satisfyingly gripping.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo