South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Cape Town, 3rd day March 18, 2006

South Africa miss the supporting act

The stand between Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting put Australia ahead in the race for the first Test and they never fell behind © Getty Images
All sports fans are fickle animals but the South African public and journalists take it to another level. After Johannesburg, the team was talking of World Cup victory, the fans were dreaming of Australian defeat in the Test matches, all seemed sunny and fine. Then, as this Test match ended in defeat, they are all looking for someone to blame. The coach, the captain, the bowlers, the batsmen, the groundsman (he was the most popular choice).

Like most Australian players and management after the Ashes defeat, South African spectators can never admit that they were beaten by a better team - Stuart Clark had a dream debut in perfect conditions; Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting batted South Africa out of the game; Australia held (almost) all their catches; South Africa didn't. These are the facts.

In reality, though, the teams were much more closely matched than the statistics and the seven-wicket defeat suggests. And a portion of the blame should really land on the shoulders of the crowd themselves. Their absence over the first two days helped Australia more than South Africa winning the toss and batting. This is a brittle Australian side, there is no doubt, and if you make it uncomfortable for them in the middle - through hard play and loud, passionate support - they don't like it.

Although the scorecard may suggest otherwise, there was only one difference between the two sides - that partnership between Hayden and Ponting of 154, the biggest of the match. But these are quality and proven international cricketers who do make the difference in tight matches. And when they batted the game was tight - this was the moment the home side really needed their home support. When the cricket is tough and the wicket is lively enough for even Andrew Hall to look world class, if the crowd gets stuck in, the Australians get edgy.

Look at the Ashes - the baying, noisy rabbles through the ODIs and at Edgbaston unsettled Hayden, and Ponting especially, it fired up Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones, it gave England a home advantage. Last night, Andre Nel complained that the crowd was too quiet, that he missed the Australian noise from earlier in the summer during the away fixtures that fired him up. The noise of the Joburg Bullring inspired that run chase, it induced panic in the Australians, led to strange captaincy decisions and shook the judgement of previously untouchable performers.

In this game, though, Clark took nine wickets, the runs were knocked off with assured batting on a pitch that seemed to finally flatten, but if South Africa had grabbed one of those early chances during Australia's second wicket stand in the first innings, it could have been different. They did take the last nine Australian wickets for 133 after all. They could have set Australia a testing 150, enough for them to think about, especially if early wickets fall - 95 was a gimme.

So what happened to cricket fever in South Africa? There is huge interest in the sport, and in the Test matches, but cricket fever is really a weekend thing, especially in the lazy shadow of Table Mountain. And one-dayers are the high currency of international cricket here, they'll pack all grounds out for those but the active interest in the Tests is lacking.

On the third morning, Saturday, with the game all but up, the crowds arrived, the atmosphere was noisy, jovial, there was even a wedding on the pitch during the tea interval - but like Jacques Rudolph's rearguard batting, it was too little, too late - and they knew it. The atmosphere was resigned to a beer-drinking day in the sun before moving to the rugby down the road in the evening - a good sporting day out.

For a sports mad country and cricket-loving public, there is something paradoxical about their lack of enthusiasm when it comes to turning up to a Test match, then the brutal vivisection of the team when their players fail to battle their way out of a losing position. So with Newlands at its colourful, brightest and liveliest, the Test match disappeared from view, the crowd went home asking where it all went wrong and finding who to blame. Never once did they think it's their fault.

Edward Craig is deputy editor of The Wisden Cricketer