'We were the Cinderella team'
In the Australian summer of 1993-94, Fanie de Villiers spent nights in Sydney watching plays, from High Society to Phantom of the Opera. Andrew Hudson spent a rained-out day during the Melbourne Test in the ground's museum, marvelling at the memorabilia. Some of the squad spent time at Australian Open, others at the Perth Horse Racing carnival. South Africa were touring Australia for the first time since readmission and there was more than cricket on their minds.
"We had group check-in at the airport, and team buses. The facilities were amazing," Hudson said. "I remember seeing the nets in Adelaide and thinking they were better than some of our pitches at home. They were like tennis courts - so smooth, so green."
While Hudson was fascinated by the organisation of cricket, de Villiers was in awe of the country itself. "The first thing that attracted me was that it was such a first-world society. Things like the effectiveness of public transport, the way things just worked - that stood out."
South Africa still regarded international cricket as a novelty. They had only played eight Test matches before the series and were still wide-eyed about the notion of playing sport abroad. But they weren't naïve. Most of the squad had already travelled to Australia for the 1992 World Cup. "We had a bit of an understanding of what we would face, and obviously we had Kepler [Wessels] with us as well. We listened to his advice and took in what he had to say," Hudson said.
However, it was Wessels' advice on bowling, de Villiers said, that prevented South Africa from dismissing Australia in the Boxing Day Test. The hosts declared on 342 for 7 and weather had the final say.
"Our tactics were wrong. We were told to bowl outside off and make them to chase the ball. It was a conservative approach, which I suppose could be understood, because we didn't want to be end up in a situation from which we couldn't fight back," de Villiers said. Hudson, Hansie Cronje and Wessels all scored half-centuries and the match was drawn, with South Africa on 258 for 3 in the first innings.
The teams moved to Sydney to play what Allan Donald remembers as the Test of his life. South Africa conceded a first-innings lead of 123 and could only set Australia a target of 116. But then de Villiers took four wickets on the fourth evening, which he credits to a change in strategy. "We decided to bowl straighter so we could try and get those lbws." Still, on the final morning Australia needed only 54 with six wickets in hand.
What followed was one of Test cricket's most unexpected comebacks.
De Villiers said conditions had changed and that he knew what to do in the circumstances. "The pitch had deteriorated and become a true spinner's wicket. We knew that they would probably try to get the total in singles and twos, and that maybe our score was worth more than the number suggested.
"I knew we had a chance but that we would have to use variations. I also knew how to do that. I had taught myself how to bowl the offcutter in county cricket. I could also bowl the slower bouncer. I was one of the few bowlers in our squad at the time who had other deliveries. We had Craig Matthews and Allan Donald to bowl the normal stuff, but I knew I could trust my bowling to do something different."
Donald made the crucial breakthrough when he bowled Allan Border. "It was surreal in a sense," Hudson said. "They lost two wickets and we just thought, 'Let's just carry on', and then they would lose two more. Things were just unfolding in front of us."
It ended when Glenn McGrath hit the ball back to de Villiers, who caught it in his follow-through. "That was the wicket I really treasured, because I knew he was the one who could make a silly mistake," de Villiers said. "We had come back from an impossible situation. The match lasted 13 sessions, and of those we probably lost 11, but we still won."
Suddenly, a group of players who had only wanted to see whether they could compete had been given an affirmation that they were up to the mark. "A lot of us were youngsters then and we had players who had played so little against other [international] teams that we never quite knew how to assess things when we won," Hudson said. "We didn't know if we had played well or the opposition had done badly. But with that win we believed that we were good enough. We saw we could do it."
The new year, 1994, had come around and South Africa stood on the cusp of a major coup. One-nil up, they sensed massive opportunity. But most of that dissipated when Australia declared on 469 for 7 in Adelaide. It was a particularly challenging experience for de Villiers. "The batsmen had just stopped playing shots. I was highly frustrated because if they didn't play shots, they couldn't get themselves out."
Hudson scored 90 and was "very disappointed" not have gone on to a make a hundred, but more concerned that South Africa were bowled out for 273. Chasing 321 for victory, they were bowled out for 129 in the second innings. De Villiers batted with a broken thumb, which had prevented him from bowling in the second innings. He decided to "also not play any shots so they couldn't get me out". His injury caused him severe pain and "the moment my wicket fell, I lost interest", he admitted. He went back to the change room and was falling asleep when Australia levelled the series.
The result left many South African players feeling bitter because seven lbw decisions were given against them compared to Australia's one. "If it wasn't for Darrell Hair, we may have had a better chance of winning that one," de Villiers said. "It was a massive blow for us, because we were the Cinderella team."
The sense of regret still lingers but only in the shadows of the more powerful positives that came out of that first venture Down Under. "It showed us if were up to the level of Test cricket at the time and how good we had to be," Hudson said. "That was really good for us. One of the things that happened is that Hansie emerged as a leader. He was very forceful in the way he just took on Shane Warne, and he seemed to get the better of him. Things like that were hugely encouraging for the rest of us."
Mixing with cricketers who had more experience was another important aspect of South Africa's development, although not all of them felt the need to form friendships. De Villiers did not mix with the opposition much because he had taken on the role of Mr Nasty.
"Myself and Pat Symcox were the tough guys on the field. We were senior guys and we tried to set the tone. So no, we didn't really find we got on well." But Hudson did. "Ian Healy and I always chatted together. After the game, we'd grab a six-pack and announce ourselves in the opposition change room. It was just wonderful to have that connection."
The two sides have come to be known as the best of enemies - at war on the field and close off it - and that relationship will resume early next month when South Africa tour Australia for three Tests. De Villiers and Hudson believe the current South African squad could well return victors.
"They are the most balanced South African Test side that I've seen, and I think they will have as good a chance as we had," de Villiers said. Hudson is South Africa's convenor of selectors and is compelled to back his own horse. "What I've come to learn about this team is that they are focused on the process and they know if they do that right, the results will take care of themselves. It's been done before - they have beaten Australia in Australia - and that will definitely be the goal this time."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent