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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rajesh on December 18, 2008, 18:27 GMT

    South Africa have always flattered to deceive on big occassions...... Personally I think the South African team under Hansie Cronje in the 1990's was the best equipped to be World Champions but subsequent outfits have not been that bad either. Hope this time they will stand up and deliver and push Australia. That would make a really good series to watch !

  • Guruprasad on December 18, 2008, 14:28 GMT

    @gwendel, when SA beat Ind and SL in the subcontinent, it was back in 2000, and those results do not affect the rankings now in 2008. Analyze this: Since 2000, SA have won a sum total of six away tests against Ind, Pak, SL, Aus and Eng. Four of these have come against Eng alone, one each against Ind and Pak, and none against SL and Aus. In the same period, India have won nine away tests, with two each against Aus, Eng, Pak and SL, and one against SA. The point is, SA have climbed to No. 2 on the basis of strong performances at home against all teams (except Aus), but have been mediocre in the subcontinent, and dismal against Aus. Fair enough, since the ranking system is same for all teams. But SA have been found sorely lacking in the matter of pushing the No. 1 team hard, and after day 2 of Perth test, SA appear to be faltering again. The familiar frailities seem to return just when SA do not want them to. Wonder what excuses Mr. Bryden has to offer after two days of play.

  • KUMARAVEL on December 18, 2008, 5:44 GMT

    @Proteas_no-1_Fan ,do you really believe this is the best SA line up since readmission? I think the team of 1996- 1999 was much better under Hansie cronjie with Hudson,Kirsten,Kallis,Hansie,Donald,Fanie de villiers to name a few. I remember the titan cup triseries in India, where the hosts India and Australia were fighting with each other for a final spot,but SA reaching the finals easily.

  • Titus on December 18, 2008, 1:31 GMT

    As an Australian, I will be very interested in how this series plays out. Past history can weigh down and produce mental scars for some, but can equally give impetus to re-write history for others.

    As to the arguments between Indians and South Africans, the Indians have fared better against the Australians, but the South Africans have definitely done far better against everybody else in all conditions. So it depends on how you want to define "best" (or 2nd-best in this case).

    The Indians have got the nucleus of a strong side (balanced attack, aggressive batting and strong leadership (aside from that 8-1 offside / bowling-3-feet-outside-off-stump debacle)) but they will also need to replace the greats in the middle order. Also, South Africa themselves have a young, and so far effective bowling attack so it will be interesting to see how things stand in a year or 2.

  • Stephen on December 17, 2008, 4:46 GMT

    @Guruprasad.S , once again do your research before posting. South Africa have won series in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. And neither of these teams have won a series in S.A. Thats what Statsguru is there for

  • Nathan on December 17, 2008, 2:28 GMT

    *yawn* I realise that some people are slow learners, but I would have thought that the south african media would have realised that talking up their team's chances before playing Australia just does not work (if history is any guide), and such articles only serve to make the writers look foolish when the series is concluded. Just for once, I would like the south african media and fans to refrain from telling us how much better their side is than Australia, at least until they actually prove it! There is a massive gap between self confidence and outright delusion.

  • Amit on December 16, 2008, 23:40 GMT

    Aussie Camp would be seriously missing the stalwarts of yester years.Now heres the chance that comes for the SouthAfricans to utlise the speed of steyn,bounce of ntini height of morkel ,experience of kallis,smith and boucher and the tremendous form of Hashim Amla,Mckenzie and others.In all looks like it could be one of the thrilling series.Cracks seem to be there in the Aussie batting and bowling Line-up and theres the chance to exploit it to its maximity.

  • Dipesh on December 16, 2008, 20:34 GMT

    This should be an awesome series with South Africa who are only getting stronger and better with each series they play and with Australia are a team who can be beaten esepcially with there bowling attack which could be the weak link. Many will be expecting South Africa to win the series and stop Australia' dominace but this series will be South Africa winning the battles agains the Aussies counterparts if they don't they will fall short. (

  • ARUN on December 16, 2008, 20:15 GMT

    I completly agree with Colin Bryden and @gwendel.In 2008 Proteas have 9-2 W/L Record Comparing to Australia's 5-3.Proteas Have Won 8 Test Series Out of Last 9 Test Series and haven't Lost a Test Series Since 2006.They only Drew One Away Series against India early this year.But Australia was Thrashed By India 2-0 Recently.

    But You Can't Rate India as Better Side than Proteas Because They were Behind Proteas In ICC Rating for a Long time.And They Have Never Won a Series at South Africa.But Proteas went to India And Drawn Test Series In their own Backyard.Proteas Could have won that series easily But It was Unfortunate with a Bad Pitch at Kanpur.But India Lost to Proteas by 2-1 After Leading 1-0 at South Africa in 2006. @SachinIsTheGreatest-So India is No way near to Proteas.

    Considering Current Proteas Lineup and Their Form I Think This is Their Best Test Squad After Their Readmission.Proteas will Beat Australia Both Away and Home Series to Take Home Series to Take No-1 Position.

  • StJohn on December 16, 2008, 19:39 GMT

    Although interesting, this article doesn't really tell us much; it seems to excuse SA's past failures. The simple fact of who won or lost never shows the true nature of any sporting encounter. For example, even in England's 5-0 Ashes drubbing in 2006-7 we can find sessions that England dominated and key moments or passages of play, or issues of team selection, where things might have turned out differently - indeed, very differently. The same can be said of all sports; for example, no team ever seems to win the football World Cup without its share of close shaves and without a big dollop of luck along the way. While its true that simple results never tell the full story, the same can be said of any team in any sport. So this analysis of SA's recent form against Australia doesn't really say anymore than can be said of any other team: they had their moments, but they still lost. Convincingly. These next series may well be different though, and the cricket world awaits a great contest!

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