The dead rubber that transformed a team
A sense of foreboding enveloped the nation. No touring side had achieved a Test series victory in Australia in 16 years and suddenly, after a three week blitz, Graeme Smith's rampaging South Africans were in possession of an unassailable 2-0 lead. The mood was maudlin. A golden era of Australian domination had shuddered to a halt.
Australian audiences held out little hope for the third and final encounter in Sydney. The match was, for all intents and purposes, a dead rubber, and with Brett Lee and Andrew Symonds in the infirmary, few - least of all bookmakers and media - envisaged a green baggy green line-up toppling Smith's well-drilled unit. When Simon Katich and Ricky Ponting fell in quick succession after the first drinks break, New Year's cheer was difficult to detect around the grand, old stands of the SCG.
The record now shows that Australia, complete with two debutants and an out-of-sorts Matthew Hayden, combined for an upset 103-run victory in the third test. It was, without doubt, a commendable result in the circumstances, but few at the time seemed to attach any great significance to it. With the series already lost and Australia's No. 1 Test ranking still in jeopardy, only the most optimistic of Australian cricket supporters subscribed to Ricky Ponting's "new year, blank canvas" theme, espoused at the post-match press conference.
History, it seems, will view the match far differently to contemporary opinion. A dead rubber it may have been, but the victory in Sydney provided Australia's rookies with invaluable self-affirmation of their abilities at international level, and Ponting the opportunity to overhaul his occasionally stale tactics to meet the needs of a new and largely untried line-up. What appeared an exercise in hole-plugging was, in fact, grooming a new generation of Australian Test team for the rigours of a tour to South Africa and beyond.
In hindsight, Peter Siddle's eight wickets, Mitchell Johnson's physical intimidation (he broke Smith's hand) and Andrew McDonald's versatility were all significant developments at the SCG. Without the services of Lee or Stuart Clark, the task fell to the aforementioned trio and Doug Bollinger to take the 20 wickets that had proven so elusive for Australia throughout 2008, and none disappointed. Johnson and Siddle have proven themselves revelations in South Africa and McDonald, though not the most fashionable cricketer, has done little to erode the selectors' faith in him. For Bollinger, another chance is surely not far away.
If, as the theory goes, success breeds success, then the importance of Australia's win in Sydney cannot be overstated. Had Phillip Hughes, Marcus North and Ben Hilfenhaus joined a side drained of confidence after a series whitewash in Australia, the story of Johannesburg may have been far different. Instead, the Wanderers debutants entered a squad imbued with optimism after the SCG triumph; a sense that heightened with each Australian success and South African setback in the first Test. Entering the third match in Cape Town, all will be well satisfied with their contributions to Australia's stunning series victory, and take confidence in the knowledge that indeed they are of international calibre.
Intriguing times lie ahead for the Australians. Victory in South Africa will surely result in the burden of expectation, unloaded so briefly, again pressing upon their shoulders. Selection issues also bring with them the potential for destabilisation, as the imposing figures of Lee, Clark, Symonds and Shane Watson jostle for Ashes selection with members of the current South African touring party.
But these are, in their own way, positive developments. Just two months ago, twenty wickets seemed an impossible dream for Australia's bowlers, and the forfeiture of their Test crown assured. Now, the team's most pressing issues stem from their recent successes, and the question of how best to build upon them. Certainly, the South Africans wouldn't mind confronting such subjects, rather than reacquainting themself with a drawing board they thought they had discarded.
The Australians were often criticised for their poor record in dead rubber games during their golden era. How ironic, then, that in this period of transition, it may very well be a dead rubber victory that is remembered as their pivotal moment.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo