December 30, 2008

A triumph beyond sport

The significance of South Africa's historic series win transcends cricket


When JP Duminy constructed his accomplished innings he was representing a coloured community that languished for so many years in a twilight world © PA Photos
 

South Africa has secured the most significant success in its cricketing history. It was a triumph that reached beyond sport. When Hashim Amla flicked another ball off his pads and scampered the winning run, he achieved more than a mere victory. It was a stroke that spoke for generations of Indian cricketers unable to compete for places in the national team. Suddenly they knew their records meant something, that they had been right, the champions of previous generations could play the game. When JP Duminy constructed his accomplished innings, he was representing a coloured community that languished for so many years in a twilight world. When Makhaya Ntini took wickets, he was uplifting downtrodden tribes. If hearts swelled with pride across the country it'd hardly be surprising. Others rejoiced in the peaceful revolution that made it possible.

Miraculously these varied characters were all playing for the same side. For so many hard decades it seemed a ridiculous dream, like the removal of the Berlin Wall. Yet there it was before our eyes, a devout Muslim stroking the decisive runs alongside a belatedly sane Salty Dick ( the term used by locals convinced that Englishmen have one foot in Africa and one in Australia). And there was Graeme Smith hugging Duminy and old stagers with tears in their eyes and Jacques Kallis taking his wife out to inspect the pitch and managers and support staff smiling from ear to ear. Rugby had led the way and now cricket has played its part. Amidst the crime and corruption there is hope.

And yet in this long awaited moment, this moment of exaltation, the South Africans behaved impeccably. Far from parading around in the disrespectful manner displayed by both parties last summer, before congratulating each other, the batsmen shook hands with opponents and umpires. Nor did their team-mates forget themselves when they came onto the field. For their part the Australians were gracious, none more so than Ricky Ponting at the awards ceremony. His team had been beaten fair and square. Australia had won both tosses. Far from claiming a low catch, too, Smith asked the umpires to check its legitimacy. Pity that did not happen last summer.

South Africa played intelligently, consistently and with the utmost determination. Throughout, Smith's side remained calm in adversity and retained confidence in itself. By no means has its rise been an overnight sensation. To the contrary, the team has been rising steadily throughout the year and even between matches. After failing in Perth, the visiting tailenders worked at their batting and played a vital role at the MCG. Unimpressed with their contributions in the first match, the fast bowlers toiled hard and improved markedly. Changes were also made between innings, with Neil McKenzie playing forward and Smith using a deeper mid-off for Matthew Hayden. Of course, the tourists caught superbly in the slips and ran sharply between innings. South Africa have played a lot of good cricket. Australia relied on superb individual performances from accomplished batsmen.

 
 
In their stint as the game's flawed exemplar, Australia have played attractive cricket, scoring quickly, encouraging legspin, fielding balanced attacks, scorning stalemates and not sledging quite as much as might be imagined. Australia were ruthless, sometimes unscrupulous, but seldom dull
 

Not the least of Smith's achievements is that his team was not scared to win. Previously the visitors had been hampered by a desire so strong it became desperation. Now they chased 414 in Perth and stormed home thanks to a measured collaboration between Duminy and AB de Villiers. Apparently, the newcomer was so nervous in the rooms that he was as sick as a school leaver. On the field he resembled Bjorn Borg. In the end South Africa had six wickets to spare. So far Australia have lost 40 wickets and taken 25.

If this turnaround was exceptional then the feat performed by the tourists in Melbourne was mind boggling. At stumps on the second day they were down for the count, 196 behind with three wickets left, a novice at the crease and callow tailenders to keep him company. Sixty-four hours later South Africa had won by nine wickets. Duminy's innings was a marvel of skill, durability and temperament but he could not have managed without Dale Steyn. Suitably inspired, the speedster promptly produced the spell that settled the match, an incisive burst that stopped Australia in their tracks. A fortnight ago the series was cast as a duel between Brett Lee and Steyn. In part it has been.

Smith also deserves credit. Four years ago, he arrived as an angry man expecting to encounter and determined to slay arrogant Australians. Not since Don Quixote has so much fury been spent to so little effect. He has returned as an affable man happy to play every ball on its merits. Assisted by an astute coach and supportive staff he has turned a diverse and once inconceivable collection of players into a formidable fighting force.

Long before the end, the Australians were beaten and bemused. Although the well-paid selectors remain obtuse, the time has come to think about tomorrow. The team chosen for the SCG Test does not serve the purpose.

At such times it is tempting to examine the causes of the collapse. Perhaps it is simply that Australia ran out of great players and luck, a combination that often goes together. Perhaps, too, it is better to remember the numerous glories of the last 15 years and not their limitations. In their stint as the game's flawed exemplar, Australia have played attractive cricket, scoring quickly, encouraging legspin, fielding balanced attacks, scorning stalemates and not sledging quite as much as might be imagined. Australia were ruthless, sometimes unscrupulous, but seldom dull. Taken as a whole, the teams led by Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting have enhanced the game, especially its five-day format.

Along the way Australia have taken part in three of the greatest series ever staged, in the Caribbean, India and England. Always it has taken a mighty effort to bring them down, and that remains the case. Australia may not have been liked but they have commanded respected, sometimes amounting to fear. It has been a time of Waugh and Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne and broken moulds. But nothing lasts forever and now it is someone else's turn.

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