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.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mohammed on December 31, 2008, 8:13 GMT

    Excellent article. I used to be very anti-S.A. cricket, and used to support anyone who played against S.A, despite not having suffered under the Apartheid system as much as my parents/grandparents. I was criticised a lot by my friends for being so unpatriotic but, to me at least, it was quite obvious that the S.A cricket setup was still controlled by the previous administration. My friends used to be critical about my attitude, until a few of them broke into the first class set-up, and got a clear view of things for themselves. It was not overt racism, but you ended up feeling that you were an intruder in their space. However in the past 2 or 3 years things seem to have changed immensely. We now have players that have schooled, socialised and played with people of all races. It may not be relevant to me any more, but to the majority of this country, seeing Duminy, Amla, Prince and Ntini on the field for South Africa, will always bring back memories of denied opportunities.

  • Gerard on December 31, 2008, 6:22 GMT

    @Cokes, I don't think you can use the quota card on this SA team, every non-white cricketer in that side deserves to be there, and most of them stepped into the side deserving to be there.

    I don't think that McKenzie should make way for Duminy for one simple reason, balance. Do you want Duminy to open? Or do you want Amla to open, who goes in at number 3? Prince, de Villiers, Duminy? Kallis will stay at 4 because of the bowling he has to do. The big reason for SA's success is because every player knows his role. Honestly I don't see where they are going to fit Duminy in. The only option I see is dropping Boucher, giving the gloves to de Villiers. But dropping a guy like Boucher is a big step, but it might be the right step. And you don't drop a guy for one bad series. Btw, why aren't you seeing Kallis and Boucher as part of the "old guard"?

    I don't think we need the quota system at international level anymore. There is enough non-white cricketers knocking on the door.

  • sridhar on December 31, 2008, 5:40 GMT

    Yes interesting because it is a triumph for a divided and troubled country that has had its share of woe. It is not that Australia were totally dominated but like they did for the last fifteen years, this time around, South Africa played the bigger moments better. It is also the time to salute Australia for their amazing consistency over the last fifteen years. I wonder if any team can match this over such a long period of time. But I do agree with you on one thing. The game despite its intensity has been played in the most amazing spirit and this is something that India and Australia never seem to be able do when they confront each other. A pity really because this series demonstrates that the most passionate of foes on the field can compete with good humour and be gracious in defeat. Australia will take a couple of years to come back. Whether it will regain its former Pre eminence is another thing altogether. Congrats South Africa and thank you Australia for your benchmarks!

  • P Subramani on December 31, 2008, 5:13 GMT

    After India set up the softening process of Australia in 2001, the new order has come about.India it was that showed the world that Australia could be beaten, firstly in 2001 and later in 2004 down under when they would have won the series but for umpiring horrors. Much the same happened early this year when Australia won. The mad scramble post the Sydney match showed how desperate the Australians were Desperate in the realisation that they had just escaped to victory. It was not just symbolic that Inda it was that beat Australia 2-0 just two months ago. Congratulations to South Africa who are much the deserving winners in the current series. I am not too sure how long the new leaders will hold on to their lead. South Africa is very good. The Indians are not bad either. Test cricket needed this change to make it more attractive. A series between India and South Africa should be held in a neutral venue to determine which of the two teams are the real champions for the moment.

  • Ramakrishnan on December 31, 2008, 3:28 GMT

    Mr Peter Roebuck has done it again, as he has been doing all along... He never misses to denounce the Australians. However, he has given some "color" at the beginning of this article while lauding the South Africans for defeating the Ricky Ponting's Australian team. Not for nothing were the Australians given the World Champions tag for so long. It will be a long wait for Mr Peter to see whether South Africans or any other Team aiming to be the No.1 team will remain at the top for such a long stretch. Australia will regain its glory sooner than later.

  • Forbes on December 31, 2008, 3:17 GMT

    Gadde& co., you tell Peter not to write of the Aussies. Well, he's not. He is simply commenting on the same thing you go on to say - that they are not the team they used to be. What's the difference? They have lost 2 of the last 3 series, including their first at home for many years. Therefore it is the end of an era and as you also state - they are in a "rebuilding phase". (Although the Aussies would not have admitted it until this point) So far, the selectors have not handled it well at all. They must be held more accountable. Who have they dropped? No-one. The only axing since things went south has been White, and they continue to play musical chairs with Kresja, Hauritz, Siddle and Watson. Speaking of the latter, why was he in the team when injured? (In fact, why do they bother with him - he is never fit?!?) Why was Symonds in as an all-rounder when he couldn't bowl. How can we accept this from Hilditch and his "well paid" cast?

  • Colin on December 31, 2008, 2:47 GMT

    One point that I guess no one has noticed so far... South Africa ended India's 13 year unbeaten Home in 2000 and now have broken Austrailia 15 year dominance at home

  • Anand on December 31, 2008, 2:34 GMT

    Peter, Well written article. Cannot agree with you more that the Australian fortress has fallen. The simple fact that this fortress fell only after 3 big blows tells (India in Australia, Australia in India and SA in Australia) speaks volumes for what was might of the Australian team. At least now cricket will have equal teams in India, S Africa and Australia and there will be lesser of one side games. All this makes test cricket a mouth watering prospect in the next 2 years.

  • Steve on December 31, 2008, 1:59 GMT

    Mr Roebuck, I have been an enthusiastic reader of your cricket writing for many years, however I do wish you would stop playing the race card as often as you do. Most people have moved on from the apartheid era, yet it seems you continue to use this as a key point of reference. You do yourself nor the previously disadvantaged any credit by this continuance. Can we at least move onto new ground as it is no longer helpful to dwell on a past which is no longer relevant? SteveT

  • Radomir on December 31, 2008, 1:40 GMT

    The ridiculous comments we hear that India and South Africa are the number 1 teams is ridiculous. Australia is still number 1 and with many players missing or injured in the last year hasn't helped the transition much. The fact is India will be facing the same dillema in fact it will be even worse when Dravid, Tendulkar and Sehwag retire. Personally I beleive Australia has not lost it's number 1 title yet because there are so many good players in the domestic scene which our blind selectors are ignoring. The team which we are playing is not the best one possible. Wait untill Hayden, Hussey, Lee, Clark and Symonds are back to their best, then the rest of the world will feel the force of Australian cricket once more. Congratulations SA but it will be a long time untill you defeat us again. This is just like the time when we were beaten by England, Kasprovic, Gillespie and injured McGrath, though this time the injuries are multiple. Australia will be back, and hard.

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