March 5, 2014

The icing on the season's cake

Test cricket is in roaring health and there has been no proof more ringing than the enthralling South Africa v Australia series

David Warner: walks it like he talks it © Getty Images

How wondrous that all the best news the old game has given us lately - bar the cockle-grilling rise of Afghanistan - has surrounded its most anachronistic and least popular incarnation. First there was the decision to allow the Associates to challenge for Test status - for which the ICC, however justly we rail against its inadequacies, deserves our thanks and mazeltovs. Then came Brendon McCullum's astounding heroics against India, affirming New Zealand's improbable renaissance. Now we have one of the most hypnotic series in recent memory to savour.

From Centurion to Cape Town via Port Elizabeth it has propelled us, from one breath-snatching inner duel to the next. All that thrusting and parrying and plotting and scheming lost little by comparison with the concurrent big attraction on Netflix, the American rendition of that political thriller supreme, House of Cards; for savagery and icy ruthlessness, His Mitchness has been Kevin Spacey's equal, as Dale Steyn's skull will testify. Shoving Graeme Smith into retirement, moreover, was a coup to match Kevin's ejection of the US president.

So enthralling has all this Afro-Australian blood-and-thundering been, it is tempting to wonder whether we were too swift to condemn the recent Ashes double header as the inevitable price of gluttony. Granted, once competitiveness has dissolved, quantity only serves to heighten disappointment, yet had this latest square-off spanned five Tests instead of that paltry ration of three, it still wouldn't have been enough to sate the connoisseur.

If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring, and Australia and South Africa would go at it every week. More than India v Pakistan, more than the Ashes, this is the contest that habitually does most to stimulate the neck hairs. Since South Africa's readmission, nine of the 13 series have been shared or decided by a single win.

Over those 39 Tests, mind, no one can deny where the edge lies. While Australia have twice strung together streaks of five wins and one of three, only twice have South Africa won two on the bounce; not once have they managed three. At the end of the Port Elizabeth Test, Australia led with 20 wins to South Africa's 10, yet the past five series underline how keenly matched the teams have become: in the 11 games prior to Newlands, Australia lead 5-4, with two stalemates. In defiance of the wider trend, furthermore, only three times in the previous 12 series had the hosts prevailed, and not once in the last five.

Out of form by a distance, Australia's captain soldiered on to stumps, by when his body looked as if it had gone ten rounds with at least one Klitschko

Within those surprising subversions of the norm lay abrupt power shifts between fixtures, even sessions. True, there had only been seven draws and not too many close finishes - three victories by two wickets, one by four, one by five; aside from Sydney 1994 (5 runs) the smallest run margin has been 103.

The roller coaster ride began at the Adelaide Oval in 1994, when Australia recovered from that stunning reversal at the SCG to share the series. In 2011 they revived from an eight-wicket loss in the first Test to sneak the second by two wickets, squaring that rubber.

South Africa, though, have been even quicker to turn their fortunes around. In Port Elizabeth they took nine wickets in a session and levelled the series; hustled out for 225 on day one in the decisive third Test in Perth 15 months ago, they rebounded to eject Australia for 163 next day, then muscled their way to 230 for 2 by stumps at six an over; on an even more extraordinary day at Newlands a year earlier, they lost their last nine wickets for 47, subsiding for 96 to trail by 188, then steamrollered Australia for 47 to set up another success. Signs of congested times or a tribute to extreme competitiveness and mutual loathing? Probably all three.

No one, therefore, should have been taken aback by Australia's fightback this week. For one thing, the three previous Tests against these opponents had seen them lurch from a 309-run drubbing to a 281-run romp then back to a 231-run swoon. For another, no national side appears to exert such a mental grip as Australia do over South Africa. Nothing proclaims this louder than David Warner's belligerent overture on Saturday and Michael Clarke's ensuing masterclass in grit and polish. Fighter and boxer; pounder and jabber. If His Mitchness is Australia's Mike Tyson, it hardly hurts having Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali on tap as well.

Warner walks it like he talks it - and he never minds walking on the wild side. In 16 innings since the start of the Ashes, he has made 1066 runs at 71.06; all three of his centuries prior to the current match paved the way for victory, so the pattern is plain; even more remarkably, in six of the eight knocks in that time where his strike rate has been better than 80 he has thrashed 66, 70 and four hundreds. If the need to adapt is clear (he averages just over 25 in his limited engagements beyond Australasia and Africa) his value on pitches offering pace and bounce is galvanic. If he's not the new Sehwag (not yet), the new Roy Fredericks is ample to be getting on with. Fortune favours the fearless.

Equally - but no more - critical was Clarke's refusal to buckle under Morne Morkel's barrage. Out of form by a distance, heartened by Dale Steyn's rebellious hamstring, only to discover that the extra responsibility aroused the nastiest from the rangy hurler from Vereeniging, Australia's captain soldiered on to stumps, by when his body looked as if it had gone ten rounds with at least one Klitschko. Next morning he faced down another immense threat as Kyle Abbott offered nothing but line, length and McGrath-ian rigour, but he came through that too, then loosened up and flourished with that supple elegance few can even countenance. Patience can seldom have been so virtuous.

If it wasn't quite up there with Steve Waugh's double-ton at Sabina Park in 1995 - Ambrose, Walsh and the Benjamins were an even more intimidating combination - it was a similar case of mind defeating matter. Nor do the parallels stop there. In Port-of-Spain a week earlier, Australia, 1-0 up in the four-match series, had been pulverised by nine wickets, Curtly and Courtney sharing 15 scalps as neither side passed 136. What came naturally to Waugh, though, was a huge stretch for Clarke. While one can hardly accuse him of being a dilettante, never has this stylist oozed such substance.

Will Clarke's obduracy bring about the downfall of the Smith empire as Waugh brought down its Caribbean counterpart? Despite Smith's own sudden exit, one doubts it. The rich promise of Abbott and Quinton de Kock, JP Duminy's resurgence and the growing assurance of Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis suggest that the biggest headache - beyond that perennial lack of quality spin - will be unearthing a solid opening duo.

But this is no time to peer ahead: let's pause, relish and wallow. How apt that this Newlands affair should offer such a vigorous climax to a fascinating and, yes, heartening 2013-14 Test season. As scarce as close contests have been (only three decided by less than 150 runs or seven wickets), the 27 previous matches have seen four defeats converted into victory in the very next assignment; now a fifth is in store. To date, only one of the season's ten completed series has been won by the tourists - Sri Lanka in Bangladesh - but there have been five individual away wins and seven draws: in other words, home sides, victors less than 56% of the time (with power to subtract), have been no more omnipotent than they are in domestic sporting leagues worldwide.

Underneath lay those yapping underdogs. For the first time since 2001, Zimbabwe beat someone other than Bangladesh; New Zealand outwitted India; Bangladesh amassed six times as many hundreds as England; only Australia exceeded New Zealand's dozen tons and 119 wickets. Nobody, not even Clarke, batted as magnificently as McCullum did in Auckland last month. No less encouragingly, the team of the season has been the most enterprising one.

And the best saved itself for last. Here, as South Africa have lunged and Australia countered, has been cricket at its most thrilling, albeit spin-free, with bowlers asking the most searching questions and batsmen less reliant on regulations than resolve. Cricket in a tux, bow-tie and topper, cane in hand, dagger in pocket: Bryan Ferry as Dracula. Utterly comfortable in its own skin, swaggeringly assured of its innate superiority, the whiff of menace constant.

Yet still, unaccountably, these intense, riveting debates lack a trophy to commemorate the passion expended. No Wisden, Worrell, D'Oliveira or Pataudi, much less a sanctified urn. Why not a pot honouring the two most prolific alumni, Shane Warne (130 wickets) and Jacques Kallis (1978 runs, 50 wickets)? Or even Australia's favourite South African, Tony Greig?

In the interests of truth and reconciliation, however, the distant past must be our guide. As a salute to the South African who suffered most cruelly for the colour of his skin, let's hear it for the Krom Hendricks Trophy.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His latest book is Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport