December 4, 2012

A short, sharp, compelling narrative

You could have argued for a longer series, but this one was close to perfect

Australia lost the Perth Test in Adelaide, where hearts were broken with no time to mend. South Africa knew this. Rarely can a team have approached a clutch match with such confidence. Imagine you are running a marathon. You give it your best shot but each time you look over your shoulder, the enemy is still there. Then, on the home run, the enemy cruises past you. Though Michael Clarke was chosen as Man of the Series for the brilliant back-to-back double-hundreds he scored in the first two Tests, Faf du Plessis was the man over his shoulder, the man who made it possible for South Africa. The prize should have been his.

A strong enough argument is made for longer series between the better-quality and best-matched teams but a short and sharp three-Test bout with two of the games played inside a fortnight provides a compelling narrative. Much was made of the damage done to Peter Siddle on Black Monday at the Adelaide Oval but it was physical and therefore had identity. The real suffering was in the mind, and most particularly the mind of the captain, who surely knew that his own team's strongest race had been run. He also knew that key members of the opposition had air left in their lungs.

First among these was Dale Steyn, a bowler of such excellence that when the force is with him events will invariably turn the way of his team. As at the Kennington Oval in London last July, Steyn chose the second morning of a crucial Test to cast his spell. Sprinting to the wicket with unparalleled zeal, releasing the ball from a perfect wrist position and following through with the skip and commitment of a Springbok outwitting its hunter, the world's finest fast bowler accounted for David Warner before the first ad break; Nathan Lyon, the nightwatchman, before the cappuccinos; and Michael Clarke before drinks.

Few bowlers can do this - change the rhythm of a match so quickly and conclusively. One who could was looking on and purring approval. The best of Steyn is not far from Dennis Lillee, who was perhaps the best of them all.

But it is not easy work, far from it. The speedgun must show 140-plus and then the late, wicked outswing becomes irresistible. In fact, so much does Steyn take from himself that these moments are becoming harder to repeat. He is working on finding that late swing at a less demanding pace but it is elusive, a gift given to few. Malcolm Marshall had the same gifts but he too was confounded by the march of time, so developed an inswinger as the option, cutting his pace and hooping the thing in and out to the amazement of friend and consternation of foe.

Alongside Steyn are the admirable Vernon Philander and the increasingly awesome Morne Morkel. This is a three-ball to die for - different, awkward and all close to their prime. Add Jacques Kallis and you can see why Allan Donald suggested it was South Africa's finest-ever seam attack. Graeme Smith gobbles everything at slip that does not go to Kallis. Kallis gobbles everything else. AB de Villiers points his fingers at the ball but still gathers it well enough for the purposes of this fast attack. Mind you, his stumping of Clarke was a pearler. Natural games players have an instinct for such moments.

The best teams know when to close in for the kill. Smith and Hashim Amla did just that on the second afternoon, rattling along at seven an over after tea. Amla would have made a hundred in that session had Kallis not replaced Smith and dominated the strike.

Imagine you are running a marathon. You give it your best shot but each time you look over your shoulder, the enemy is still there. Then, on the home run, the enemy cruises past you

Amla must now be discussed alongside all the great Asian batsmen of the age. He is secure and comfortable in his skin, and his cricket is the product of a long school of learning. Put simply, he did not* have it easy and this stands him apart. Were he denied bat and ball tomorrow, you sense he would happily find something else at which to excel. As John Arlott noted: "He who knows only cricket, knows not cricket at all." (An adaptation of CLR James' memorable quotation of cricketers at the time.)**

Amla's innings humiliated Australia, so simple was its conception, so daring was its execution. But he knew he had an immature attack at his mercy and he sure hurt them for it. De Villiers fed from this, stuttering to 50 but then sprinting the rest of the way. Maybe AB can bat up the order after all, and to somewhere near the limit of his talent, while keeping wickets too. The selectors should not expect consistency, however, for these are creasing responsibilities.

South Africa has a very, very good team. The lack of a notable tweaker suggests it may not be a great one. I know West Indies pulled it off in the 1980s. It is just a hunch. These South Africans can be beaten, should have been in Adelaide if we are honest. West Indies, for a decade, could not. Neither are they quite as convincing as the team Ricky Ponting first led. Perhaps that is just the Warne factor.

Ponting said an excruciating goodbye to the international arena, which was sad. This most gladiatorial of cricketers was rendered helpless by a wretched loss of form. Temporary it may well have been but forgiving it is not. His permanent class deserved a better final curtain - a proper, glowing encore and bow. The hard-edged Tasmanian is one of the outstanding cricketers of any age. Supreme fitness, an ongoing sparkle in the field and an indomitable will carried him as far as it was possible to go. For whatever reason, the eyes, the hands, the bat had lost their magic. Surprisingly, he will play on in state cricket. Goodness, he must love the game.

And what more could we ask of the cricketers we watch, talk about, write about and so admire, than for them to love the game? It is a precious thing and a large part of our lives. The series finished with Smith interviewed by Mark Taylor on the presentation stage. Ten years in the job - an incredible 97 times he has led South Africa in Test matches - and he was word-perfect. Immensely generous in his reflections on Ponting, fair-minded in his appraisal of the series, sensible on the peripherals. And then he smiled a big man's smile at a job well done and a Test match mace set firmly in his arms that said, "We, ladies and gentlemen, are the champions of the world."

*04:14:32 GMT, December 5, 2012: Changed from "Amla did have it easy".

**13:13:50 GMT, December 5, 2012: The quote was originally attributed to John Arlott in this article

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK