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March 23, 2009
Twenty-nine days of Test cricket across three months and more than 10,000 kilometres has not been enough to split the world's two best teams. After the battles at home and away the final outcome was Australia 3, South Africa 3. The net result is that Australia are still the No. 1-ranked team in the world and South Africa remain second. The numbers might be soon forgotten but the quality of cricket that has been on display will be remembered for years to come.
The final Test of a long, fiercely-contested and highly-entertaining summer ended with ten minutes to spare on the fourth day. It was the first of the six Tests between these two sides this season that failed to reach the fifth day. Every match produced a result and threw up individual performances that showed the five-day format at its very best.
At the WACA in December it was Mitchell Johnson's scarcely believable eight-wicket haul followed by an even more surprising effort from AB de Villiers and the South Africans, who completed the second-highest chase in Test history. In Melbourne it was the arrival of JP Duminy, whose 166 stamped him as a world-class player. At the SCG it was the spine-tingling sight of Graeme Smith walking down the steps with an hour to play, ready to bat with a broken hand to try and save the match.
In Johannesburg it was Marcus North's century on debut, combined with Johnson's breathtaking unbeaten 96. At Kingsmead it was the 20-year-old Phillip Hughes, who refused to back down against one of the meanest pace attacks in the world, and became the youngest man in history to score two centuries in a Test. And in Cape Town it was the return of the forgotten man Ashwell Prince to score 150 as an opener, followed by a Johnson hundred that was a footnote to the match but possibly the start of a new chapter for Australia.
There wasn't a boring match among them. The evenness of the overall contest bodes well for future bouts between these two teams - the series will become more frequent and will no longer be held back-to-back - which are, along with India, unquestionably the current superpowers in Test cricket.
"Right at the moment that's the way it is," Ricky Ponting said. "I'm not sure if that will always remain the same because there are a number of other very good Test sides out there as well. Whenever you mention rankings and things you've always got to throw India into that as well because they are a very formidable team, mainly at home but they are starting to put some better performances on the board away from home as well.
"But as far as we're concerned, we'd like to think that with what we've done in the last few months, bringing on a new generation of Australian players, that we can maintain a really high level of Test match cricket. If we do that and play somewhere the way we've played in the first couple of weeks of this Test match tour and then I think we'll take some knocking out of that No. 1 ranking."
It was a strange scenario at the end of the Newlands match. Australia had lost and it was a hefty defeat by an innings and 20 runs. Yet there were smiles in the dressing room as the match slipped away, in part because there was the entertainment of Johnson's hundred but also because the result of the dead rubber could be quickly erased from the Australians' memory.
As Ponting's men had their photos taken with the series trophy and lapped up the atmosphere in the twilight with Table Mountain in the background, the South Africans also celebrated. It was the second time they had beaten Australia by an innings - the first came in Durban in 1969-70 - and they had rediscovered the form that deserted them after their 2-1 win in Australia.
The re-emergence of Prince and centuries to AB de Villiers and the stand-in captain Jacques Kallis gave the Newlands crowd plenty to cheer, as did the nine-wicket match haul from Paul Harris. Kallis said his men would celebrate the strong performance but would also reflect on a series that was over too quickly.
"[We're] obviously elated with the win," Kallis said. "The guys really pitched up here on day one and we played the type of cricket that we know we can play. But it is frustrating that we didn't turn up like that on the first day of the series. Having said that Australia played some really good cricket and put us under pressure."
The difference in the first two Tests was the incisiveness of the attacks on helpful pitches and South Africa's experienced unit led by Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini was outbowled by Australia's young group. It wasn't until the flat surface in Cape Town that Steyn found the sort of spark he had boasted in Australia..
"Sometimes you get on a wicket that helps you as a bowling attack and you try and bowl teams out and you forget what really works, and that's hitting good areas," he said. "We did that exceptionally well in this Test match and that's what was lacking in the first two Test matches. I think the guys have learnt a lot. On a green wicket you've got to bowl exactly the same way as if you're bowling on a flat wicket and that's what gets you the wickets, not searching for those miracle balls that pitch leg and hit the top of off."
The miracle balls might not have come for South Africa in this series but across the six Tests there have been more than enough miraculous feats from both teams. Fans will look back on the past three months as a golden summer for Test cricket.