December 16, 2008

Bring on the exorcism

South Africa have been better in Australia than their recent results there indicate. Will they finally lay the ghosts to rest this time?

Old and improved: Graeme Smith is a wiser captain now and his experience will count for a lot © Getty Images

Ben Crenshaw, the American golfer, used to say, "You have to knock on the door a few times before you can go in." He was talking about winning Major championships but it could be applied to cricket teams visiting Australia. Crenshaw must have doubted whether the door would ever open, but eventually, after 16 top ten finishes in Majors, he won the 1984 Masters.

If the analogy was carried through to cricket, the knuckles of successive South African teams are probably bleeding from unsuccessful attempts to force the door down.

As South Africa go into their fifth campaign in Australia in the post-unity era, there is reason for optimism, and once again, for caution.

South Africa's Test record since 1991-92 shows an impressive 79 wins against 41defeats in 166 matches. They have a winning record against every team except Australia, who have inflicted 15 of those defeats. South Africa have won only four of 24 contests against Australia, two in "dead rubber" games.

The uncomfortable truth is that South Africa have not won a Test match against the world champions with a series still at stake in almost 15 years, since 1993-94, when Kepler Wessels, wise in the ways of Australians from his days in their camp, led an inexperienced but durable team against a side that was not yet an all-conquering outfit.

There are several reasons for this, the most important of which is that Australia have fielded the stronger, better-balanced teams. Mental strength has been a factor, however: the Australians have been able to create and exploit psychological frailties in the men from across the Indian Ocean.

Individual South African players have less impressive records against Australia than against other teams, although with a few notable exceptions this probably applies to most other players in the world.

Yet South Africa have been more competitive in Australia than is suggested by the 6-0 scoreline in the most recent three series.

In each there have been key periods, all of which have either been won by Australia or not seized by their opponents. Failures of form and nerve at crucial times, dropped catches, and injuries to key players have hampered South Africa's cause.

In 1997-98, after Jacques Kallis' maiden Test century earned South Africa a draw in Melbourne, the tourists batted too slowly in their first innings after winning the toss on a spinner's pitch in Sydney. They didn't make enough runs, but the match was still evenly poised well into the Australian innings before the Waugh brothers scrapped their way through a crucial partnership and Australia eked out a 134-run lead. South Africa then collapsed ignominiously against Shane Warne to lose by an innings.

Despite the absence of Allan Donald through injury, South Africa had the better of the third and final Test in Adelaide. Shaun Pollock produced a career-defining performance in blistering heat but South Africa could not finish off their opponents. Mark Waugh made an undefeated century, surviving four dropped catches and an appeal for hit-wicket, as Australia escaped with a draw.

The 2001-02 campaign was South Africa's most disappointing. There were some dubious selections, including that of Donald, who had been injured and was patently not at his best. Boeta Dippenaar's marginal edge in experience was preferred, unsuccessfully, to that of Jacques Rudolph in the crucial No. 3 position. When Rudolph was picked for the final Test, his selection was vetoed by the board president, Percy Sonn, on the grounds that the "disadvantaged" Justin Ontong should play instead.

In each of the last few series there have been key periods, all of which have either been won by Australia or not seized by their opponents. Failures of form and nerve at crucial times, dropped catches, and injuries to key players have hampered South Africa's cause

Shaun Pollock's men were ill-advised in adopting a laager mentality to the Australian media, there seemed to be a lack of decisive strategy, and a weakened bowling attack was put to the sword by Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, who shared two double-century opening partnerships and scored five centuries between them. Australia won all three matches. Even so, the first Test, in Adelaide, might have been drawn had not Hayden played a pyrotechnic second innings to set up a declaration that was followed by another Warne-inspired collapse.

Three years ago Graeme Smith boldly decided to be the focal point for his opponents and the media, making some provocative statements about the Australians, in particular the perceived undermining of Ricky Ponting as captain by Warne. Smith was targeted by the Australian bowlers and had a dismal series, failing to reach 40 in any of his six innings.

Australia won the series 2-0, but South Africa were competitive, earning a draw in Perth and then seemingly having the hosts on their knees at 248 for nine early on the second morning in Melbourne. The normally reliable Kallis dropped a straightforward slip chance off Mike Hussey, who then put on 107 for the last wicket with Glenn McGrath.

Australia did not take control until a swashbuckling second-innings stand between Hayden, who survived an early chance, and Andrew Symonds, which was followed by an all-too-familiar South African batting failure, with Warne and McGrath doing the major damage.

No Warne, no McGrath, but there's one other bogeyman left yet © Getty Images

South Africa had the better of the final Test in Sydney but the loss of most of the fourth day to rain forced Smith to make an over-generous declaration, enabling Hayden and Ponting to take Australia to what in the end was an easy win.

This time round, South Africa have a settled batting order in which all of the top six have proven pedigrees - although not necessarily against Australia. Smith has become a mature and impressive leader and the fast bowling has the potential to wreak havoc. The slip cordon has caught outstandingly in the past year and a half.

Although Australia are not quite the side they were, worrying aspects remain for South Africa. Smith's tennis-elbow injury is likely to trouble him throughout the series, although he will undoubtedly battle through, and the doubts about the fitness of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, the key fast bowlers, are of concern with the first Test close at hand.

There was a quiet confidence about the South Africans before they left. Whether they will be troubled by history or allow demons of doubt to creep into their play remains to be seen. Their key players need to be fully fit and every chance needs to be snapped up. The most important individuals could be Smith and Hayden, both capable of dominating from the start of an innings, and both with points to prove. If, but only if, everything falls into place for South Africa, the magical door to success in Australia could open.

Colin Bryden is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times, South Africa, and editor of the Mutual & Federal South African Cricket Annual