December 21, 2008

Weaklings turn bullies

South Africa have never, yet, snared a series in Australia. But suddenly their corner looks very compellingly like the one to be in

At 3.55pm on a sunny Sunday in Perth, the truly cathartic moment may have come for South Africa © PA Photos

The serenity… the consummate serenity. No, those couldn't have been South Africans coolly dug in at the fifth-day WACA crease or chilling in vest-clad clusters on the away dressing-room balcony. Could they?

You may have blinked, but they were.

For the first time since January 6, 1994 in Sydney, when Fanie de Villiers jubilantly turned both arms to the heavens after his caught-and-bowled dismissal of a skinny, fresh-faced Glenn McGrath, a South African cricket team had sampled something other than defeat, sporadic draws, or heaps of general heartbreak in a Test match in Australia. And it came under circumstances seismic enough to warrant picking up the weighty albatross that had oppressively enveloped South African necks and flinging the infernal thing into a muddy swamp.

Always in the post-isolation era, touring South African teams have had their moments down under - for it is their instinctive way to be competitive and belligerent. It has not always been their characteristic, however, to be street-smart and to play the pivotal cards well. Indeed, it was something of a standing joke in Australia that the "Saffers" could be uncannily relied upon to collapse in a bloodied heap in the 15th round - if not sometimes well before that when a certain Shane Warne, in particular, smelled claret and liked it. Steve Waugh used to relish South Africa tottering on the mental tightrope, too; it was his gleeful signal to savagely turn screws and simultaneously back up his famous barbs at the sensitive southern-hemisphere foes.

It has made for some wincing, deflating, hands-on-heads experiences for the good folk of the Rainbow Nation, all too often putting the kettle on and settling into bouts of televised masochism in the bleary hours before dawn. Yes, South Africa's supposed heavyweight cricketing arsenal has tended to reveal fatal flab and a glass jaw in Australia.

But wheels turn, and we know that Australian captaincy incumbent Ricky Ponting has slowly but surely shed some of his most valued punching partners. (He may be especially loath to sacrifice another in the big-bicep Queenslander Matthew Hayden just yet, wretched form and luck notwithstanding.)

All the while, a fantastically and unusually settled South African team, glued by the strategic alliance of Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur, has made tip-toed yet meaningful strides in the ring. Beating Pakistan away, sharing the spoils in India, winning a series in England for the first time since 1965 - suddenly the big talkers were learning to deliver on all their bluster.

At 3.55pm on a sunny Sunday in Perth, though, the truly cathartic moment may have come, as South Africa put the seal on their illuminatingly unfussed work of achieving the second best fourth-innings run chase in Test history. Had either of AB de Villiers or JP Duminy finished it off with a six on 413, when the scores were tied, it would even have eclipsed West Indies' 418 for 7 to win against the same Australia in Antigua in 2002-03. But in terms of the magnitude of the respective victories, the Perth one positively romps home on points: the West Indies triumph came in a rubber as dead (0-3 going into the match) as the proverbial dodo.

They're already calling this epic 2008-09 Test match "the cracker at the WACA": to many South Africans, make no mistake, that term is likely to generate the sort of the treasured sporting gravitas of the Rumble in the Jungle or the Thrilla in Manila.

Only, this time there wasn't just one victorious heavyweight. The big feature of the first Test fairytale was just how ballsy, throughout the ranks, this South African team turned out to be.

As much as anything, this was a triumph of faith: the faith that has been shown for a year or two in a jealously small core of players powering the South African Test cause

The scoreboard for the game confirms it, with an impressive queue of candidates for player of the match, before de Villiers, who was simply never out of the game with his two weighty, mature innings and jaw-dropping catching in the cordon, stole it by a whisker from the likes of Smith - he of the seemingly limitless pain threshold - and revitalised allrounder Jacques Kallis.

In a match that fluctuated intriguingly until South Africa made it look so spookily easy on day five, it is worth noting that Australia, ominously true to tradition, had had their noses in front more often. Cynical South Africans had a right to fear history was in the process of repeating itself. Instead the mouse roared.

As much as anything, this was a triumph of faith: the faith that has been shown for a year or two in a jealously small core of players powering the South African Test cause. The XI routinely fielded does not always escape critics' harsh, eagle eyes. Arthur knows deep down that the tail, the 8-11, is almost lamentably weak. But he backs the specialist batsmen to post the runs and he backs his strike bowlers to do the 20-wickets job.

"These are the guys we believe in," he will tell you, with conviction and refreshingly free of rocket-science-speak. That belief extends to Duminy, the little Cape Cobras left-hander who has been part of the squad furniture for a while but had to wait patiently to finally be catapulted to duty at the WACA because of Ashwell Prince's late cracked thumb. Duminy's elasticity, soft hands and composure were there for all to see, and the temperate Richie Benaud was also moved to observe: "He's like lightning between the wickets."

Bouquets for this victory under the steely, and increasingly less brash "Biff" Smith have criss-crossed South Africa. An important one came from Ali Bacher, South African captain of the famous 4-0 whitewash of the visiting Aussies in 1969-70. "I believe this to be our best Test win ever," he said. "Surely our finest moment… an extraordinary performance."

The greater job is far from done. South Africa have never, yet, snared a series in Australia. But suddenly their corner looks very compellingly like the one to be in.

The once pimply, goofy kid has spiky stubble now. The Aussie meanie? He seems a bit long in the tooth, even after recent forced personnel alterations.

Early-morning alarm clocks from Cape Town to Krugersdorp and KwaMashu may not signal dread for cricket fans over the remainder of the festive season, and that would make a nice change.

Robert Houwing is chief writer for in South Africa.