November 16, 2011

South Africa v Australia? Now that's tasty

The two teams have been eyeballing each other since South Africa returned to international cricket. Theirs is the best rivalry today because it is a battle of wills

"And we are twins in spirit
No matter which route home we take
Or what we forsake"
(Joni Mitchell, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter")

Tokyo 1990, and James "Buster" Douglas has just pulled off the biggest shock in the annals of professional boxing, all but melting "Iron Mike" Tyson. Never one to stint on the theatrical flourishes, Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen used to introduce the late Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, his vast saxophone-toting sidekick, as "the Dean of Mean, the Master of Disaster"; Tyson was the Master of Mean, the Deliverer of Disaster, the postman who never stopped ringing. Yet Douglas, a 100-1 shot in a two-horse race, had knocked him down and out, ripping the heavyweight crown off the head of its most fearsome owner.

Larry Merchant clambered into the ring, thrust a microphone under the new champion's swollen, sweat-drenched features and asked the question on everyone's lips, albeit not quite in the manner anticipated. "Why did this happen, James?" The reply was unhesitating, matter-of-fact: "Because I wanted it."

Those words came back to me time and again during last week's Cape Town wicket-fest. First, Michael Clarke wrested the initiative from South Africa, because, over the decades and centuries, Australians have wanted it more than any other cricketing nation has wanted it. He imposed his will. Cue Shane Watson, who wants to succeed Jacques Kallis as the planet's finest, because, like Kallis, he has to be the best, needs to be the best, to give his life meaning. He wanted it so much, he sent back five men in 21 balls. Then Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel wanted it so much, they left Australia within one false shot of the greatest indignity of all - succeeding New Zealand as authors of the most pitiful Test innings of all. Chokers, us? Coming from a batsman whose technique would have sunk a thousand other careers had it not been reinforced by a heart of steel, Graeme Smith's match-winning hundred felt preordained. Just as Sonny Liston had glowered Floyd Patterson into submission at the weigh-in for their first one-rounder in 1962, South Africa's captain stared down his less-seasoned opposite number; bent on ending his career on a high, he was never going to be the one who flinched first.

At length, nevertheless, having factored in the vagaries of a demanding but far from invincible pitch - one that would doubtless have earned censure had it been in Sri Lanka and the spinners had done the dastardly deeds - I decided that what it was actually all about was us addicts, we for whom cricket is, quite frankly, far too big a fix. We wanted it. We willed it.

HEAVEN KNOWS WE DESERVED IT. A fortnight ago, one national captain and two of the game's finest bowlers were sentenced to jail for reasons too depressingly familiar to bear repeating. A month ago, England were behaving like victory-spoiled brats in India, and Haroon Lorgat was announcing that the World Test Championship would almost certainly not take place until 2017 (confirmation came this Monday): the ICC's broadcasting pals, it appears, are considerably keener on another Champions Trophy, an event for which Indian participation could be guaranteed.

A week ago, Paul Kelso of the Daily Telegraph elicited some deeply pessimistic views about the game's future from Giles Clarke, chairman of the ECB (if I were the England and Wales Cricket Board, I'd ditch that acronym, partly to inject the necessary Welshness, mostly to distance myself from all those rotten bankers). On the same day, one of my students, Jason Mennell, a talented young Zimbabwean, revealed some decidedly dodgy doings at the Thailand Cricket Association, doings that, given what we already know about how ICC funding has been abused in the USA and Zimbabwe (and probably Kenya too), may be increasingly common the further you go down the pyramid. In short, finding nice things to say about flannelled foolishness is rapidly becoming about as tricky as lamenting Silvio Berlusconi's resignation.

India v Pakistan is about sibling rivalry; ditto Australia v New Zealand, England v Australia - or England v Anyone for that matter - is strictly Oedipal. India v Australia may have sparked the loudest rows in recent memory, but for sheer bite and edge, Australia v South Africa is now the daddy

As ever, it took that budding dinosaur, the five-day play, to pierce the gloom. Zimbabwe all but chased down 366 against New Zealand in Bulawayo, going for broke even as wickets crashed. In Delhi, West Indies required just 40 overs to capture 10 not-so-little Indians, whereupon VVS Laxman hoisted his average in successful chases beyond 100. Then came Newlands and cricket that whisked the breath away, hid it in a closet and locked the door. If sport's greatest gift is to make us gawp in wonder, this month has supplied a down payment on the debt for all that angst.

In terms of gobsmackability, I can recall witnessing just three occasions comparable to that madcap second day at Newlands, Anglo-Caribbean affairs all. Exhibit 1: Port-of-Spain, March 29, 1994, England ambushed and Ambrosed as the West Indian empire roared its fading roar. Exhibit 2: Lord's, June 30, 2000 - 76.1 overs, 21 wickets, the first Test day ever to span four innings. Exhibit 3 soon followed: Headingley, August 18 - England recover from 124 for 6, 48 behind, grit out a lead of 100 then skittle Lara and Co for 61: all over in two days. Wickets clattering with gay abandon, triggered by irresistible bowling rather than irredeemable batting: now that's cricket, or at least cricket at its most mesmeric.

NEWLANDS, TOO, WITNESSED the start, end or entirety of four separate innings. That four decisions were reversed on review was a rousing vindication of the much-maligned, immaculately imperfect DRS (that out-of-range Hot Spot signal, mind, really was a horrid cock-up). Twenty-three wickets, the most in a Test day since 1902, and barely a murmur about the umps. What twilight zone is this?

Even so, what my internal hard drive will hoard longest is the day before. When Dale Steyn showed why he is head, shoulders and midriff above his peers, by a distance no bowler has opened up since SF Barnes nigh on a century ago. When Clarke looked more like a coconut shy than a national leader yet summoned his inner growl to counter-attack with such exquisite elegance, it was exceedingly hard to believe he was in the same continent, much less the same expanse of grass. When the more Steyn snarled the softer Clarke smiled (let him demean his own efforts all he likes, the rest of us know how special they were). When Australian and South African went toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball.

The Boss was wrong. We weren't born to run, we were born to confront. Issues, problems, parents, colleagues, rivals - but mostly ourselves. And confront is what Australia and South Africa, when they occupy the same cricket field, do better, more spine-tinglingly, than other contemporary duellists. Toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball.

India v Pakistan is all about sibling rivalry; ditto, to a less toxic extent, Australia v New Zealand, England v Australia - or England v Anyone for that matter - is strictly Oedipal. India v Australia, a pair of playground bullies locking fists, may have sparked the loudest rows in recent memory, but for sheer bite and edge, Australia v South Africa is now the daddy: it's sibling rivalry, Jim, but so much more than that.

Every series, every match, is a spiritual tug of war, a right royal scrap between fierce but fallible wills. In the first four Test series after South Africa's re-entry, the scores (Australia first) were 1-1, 1-1, 2-1 and 0-0; the two rubbers prior to this were mirror images - 2-1 to South Africa in Australia, 2-1 to Australia in South Africa. Australia have won 12 of the last 24 ODIs, South Africa 12; after eight T20s, the score is 4-4. Even when 18 men fell in those crazy 23 overs at Newlands, they split the spoils down the middle. Parallels are hard to trace. Even when West Indies and Pakistan were slugging it out in the '80s - three drawn series and a 1-0 squeak to Viv and Co, who edged the conclusive Tests four to three - the former dominated the one-day debates. Back to another North American troubador with poetic inclinations, Joni Mitchell: "They dare not look away, you know they dare not look away."

Of late, however, the Aussies have tended to blink first: Herschelle Gibbs' fearless assault at the Wanderers in 2006 as the hosts chased down 435; those nerveless last-innings stands by Smith and Hashim Amla in Perth three years ago and in Cape Town last Friday; the 180-run ninth-wicket alliance between JP Duminy and Steyn that transformed the 2008 Boxing Day Test. Have the South Africans truly, finally, drawn a line under that 1999 World Cup semi-final, the bout that more or less defined ebb and flow?

That evenness reflects the similarities. White Australians and white South Africans are not only brothers but twins in spirit. Conjoined in guilt over injustices to their coloured kith and kin yet resistant to what the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey dubbed "the black armband view of history"; that mutual belief in the life-enhancing, nation-lifting, masculinity-affirming properties of sporting success persists, unbreakable and unmatched. And if that sometimes means naked aggression, macho posturing and all the nasties - well, that's the price Shane Warne was eminently willing to pay if it meant mentally disintegrating Daryl Cullinan. And the price we're prepared to pay for spice.

So roll on Jo'burg. And terminate with extreme prejudice whichever profoundly unwise men decreed that a two-chapter tale was sufficient in any circumstances, let alone our current plight.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • A on November 18, 2011, 23:56 GMT

    If you pick last 10 yrs or so, the best rivalry has to go to SA vs Aus and I would rate IND vs AUS come close second.

  • Rumesh on November 18, 2011, 22:10 GMT

    The BEST RIVALRY so far has been Pakistan VS Kenya.

  • Jabulani on November 18, 2011, 15:15 GMT

    @davidpk - unlike the UK, SA does not have a dole system so we have to work during the week.

  • Dummy4 on November 18, 2011, 13:06 GMT

    Day one rarely draws big crowds at the Wanderers. Plus us Saffers are so used to the bloody Ausies counter punching we're scared to watch our own team's first blows of the match. Hehe.

    I can't see anybody realistically rating any rivalry, each series has its own moments of utter competition and sometimes even full out war! I love watching my team play Aus, England, India, the Kiwis and most of the top level teams. And for me the rivalry feels the same.

    Although if I had to (was forced with a gun to my head) pick I'd watch us play the Ausies every day for the rest of my life and die a happy man. Always great cricket!

  • Alan on November 18, 2011, 10:33 GMT

    @RandyOZ: A question for you. Who holds the record for the most appearances in Ashes tests without ever appearing on the winning side? I'll give you some clues: the answer is a player who appeared in 15 Ashes tests without ever experiencing victory, and was a South African, and at the time, England also had other southern Africans, notably Hick and Lamb, regularly appearing for their team. I'd suggest that this is a problem for your idea that England have only been able to compete in the Ashes since they started picking players of South African descent and benefited from their 'not guts [sic] no glory' attitude. I might also note that during the same run of defeats England experienced between 1989 and 2003, England also picked a number of players of Australian descent, notably Martin McCague, Craig White and Alan Mullally. The "Australian" "attitude" certainly benefited England little at this time: White indeed appeared on the losing side in all of the 7 Ashes tests he played

  • Amol on November 18, 2011, 7:12 GMT

    Let's not forget that in that legendary WC1999 semi-final, AUS did NOT surpass SA by a whisker or anything. It was a T-I-E at 213 runs each. Just because AUS qualified for the final does NOT mean that AUS won that match.

  • Amol on November 18, 2011, 4:14 GMT

    The only factor due to which SA used to lose to AUS **in Tests** in 2005-2006 or before, was the great Shane Warne. Otherwise SA was always equal to AUS since their return in 1991. How else does one explain the supreme position of SA in ODIs in 1990s competing and beating AUS in it but losing so badly against them in the Tests especially the 1997-98, 2001-02, 2005--06 then ? And as an Indian I love SA-AUS Tests more than IND's Home Tests because in the former every run is earned and is far more thrilling to watch to be played on the bouncy pitches of SA and AUS. Frankly Tests here on the sub-continent are simply bore irrespective of who's involved.

  • Marcio on November 18, 2011, 3:27 GMT

    Perhaps not the greatest rivalry, but very competitive games, and this series is an exciting one, though far too short. The Ashes is defininitely the greatest rivalry for AUS, and those from the subcontinent popsting stupid comments during the Ashes, like "This is only number 3 ranked team vs number 4" have no idea what they are talking about. Ranking have NOTHING to do with such rivalry! AUS vs NZ ODIs in NZ are a genuine rivalry too. NZ always fight hard, and often win.

  • GARY on November 17, 2011, 22:55 GMT

    Like a few others have said there's been some kind of selective memory going on here, for the rivalry between SA and Oz. SA were getting dominated for the most part, why does he fail to mention that Oz have won 7 of 8 test series since '97 and most haven't been competitive. They had those back to back series a few years ago where they each won in the others back yard, which was fairly decent but seriously this has been painted into something it isn't, especially when it refers to evenness. Ask any self respecting Aussie which series would they rather win the SA one or the Ashes and I bet the large majority would say only one thing the Ashes and the same goes for the English. All you have to do to get an idea of the the rivalry, is look at the crowds watching, somebody better tell the SA's that this is their greatest rivalry because they don't seem to know about it.

  • avinash on November 17, 2011, 20:41 GMT

    @Xolile - Yes SA defeated India in 1999/00...but that's long ago when India was just a mediocre team....The Indian team from the past 4-5 years has been doing very well....SA is a great team and they are the toughest competition for India in India as they are good players of spin.....but cannot wonder why they fall apart against the aussies.....I would love to see SA thrash the Aussies in the 2nd test just as they did in the 1st...:)

  • No featured comments at the moment.