South Africa v Australia, 2nd Test, Johannesburg, 5th day November 21, 2011

Much to laud, much to lament

With the ball, South Africa were incisive at some times, ineffectual at others; the batting was consistent but not without question marks of its own

For South Africa, beating Australia in a home series would have been the final Test frontier. Victory would have completed their pack of cards and given them series triumphs over all Test-playing countries, both home and away.

Instead, they will have to wait at least another two years for a chance to come full circle. The drawn series also means that South Africa have gone four series without winning at home, with their last triumph in 2008, over Bangladesh. Still, they are ranked third in the world and have a Test outfit that produces some of the most gripping and enchanting contests this form of the game currently showcases.

South Africa are in possession of a pace attack that is lauded as the most aggressive in the world, a top six that can withstand some of the best quicks, tweakers and medium-pacers the game has to offer, and fielders who dart around as though run-saving was worth all the money in the world. They have given Test cricket some of the game's most tense moments, most dramatic collapses and recoveries, and most emotional passages of play, and that's just in this series. At the end of it, they had half a trophy to show for their efforts and the whole alphabet of disappointment written on Graeme Smith's grim face.

"It's not ideal," the captain said, his expression giving away far more than that those three words could capture, when asked about South Africa's poor home record of late. "We need to improve on certain facets of our game. There were a lot of really good things, but there were [also] things we really need to improve on. Considering that we haven't played in [about] eight months, there was no in-between."

But there was. Perhaps in the aftermath of a draining Test, the only colours Smith could see were black and white. The subtleties of other shades were lost on him, but as the days wear on, he will start to see them. Overall, South Africa have much to laud and much to lament, tied series result reflects that.

With the ball, they were incisive at some times, ineffectual at others. The emergence of Vernon Philander as an authoritative figure with the new ball has taken South Africa's seam attack forward, for sure. After two seasons of playing the SuperSport Series, which yielded 80 wickets, Philander made himself impossible to ignore; he had the best average of any bowler who had taken more than 250 wickets in first-class cricket.

Despite that, on the cusp of Test debut, he had more doubters than supporters. With every one of the 14 wickets he took, he proved them wrong. He is fit, he is determined and he compliments the rest of the attack. "Vernon has been stand out," Gary Kirsten, the South Africa, coach said. "He has served his time at first-class level and we felt that we wanted to give him an opportunity, and he has come in and delivered the goods."

With the new-ball pair of Philander and Steyn, the change bowlers of Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis, and the attacking option of Imran Tahir, the South Africa attack is the most dynamic it has ever been. Tahir had been the missing element in their bowling but, as yet, the jury is out on whether he has fitted in as precisely as the team would have liked. He proved his worth on the second afternoon when he cleaned up Australia's lower order in nine overs, and was expected to do the same on the fifth day, on a wearing pitch. But the morning drizzle did not help. Then, he was tossed the ball at the worst of times, with Australia needing five to win. Still, Tahir caused problems with his lbw appeal against Pat Cummins, and his googly has emerged as one of the most dangerous weapons of the South Africa attack.

Perhaps batsmen will learn to pick him in future and he will have to continually improve aspects of his game. Perhaps he will be taken out of the mix before he becomes a factor, particularly if he insists on running on the pitch and is warned enough times. Smith admitted that Tahir is not quite the finished product just yet. "It's his first taste of Test cricket and he now knows what he needs to improve on. He felt a little bit of pressure from running on the wicket and that needs to be addressed," Smith said.

"With ball in hand, he has ability. He needs to find a way to make that ability match up to Test match cricket as well as it has in first-class cricket. That's the challenge of the management team."

Should they handle him correctly, Tahir will form a cog as important as Dale Steyn, who spearheads the attack, even when he is not at his best. Steyn needed a few spells to get into rhythm in this series, at times he bowled slower than usual, at times with seemingly less intent. Kirsten felt that the demands on him could be eased. "The one thing about Dale Steyn is that he has to be running in with full intensity. It's a massive physical demand on him to get it up to 145 [kph]," he said. "He is a skilled enough bowler to bowl at 80% and still be a factor. It would be unrealistic of us to expect him to be up at 145 every session."

The batting, meanwhile, remains consistent, with the exception of the opening position. Jacques Rudolph came in to partner Smith and although he looked confident, could not get beyond a start. Kirsten indicated that Rudolph will be given more time to show his competence. "I would like to give guys decent opportunities and for them know that they've got a bit of a run," he said. "You need guys to settle in and know that they are not being watched every minute of the day. That's not healthy."

He also voiced support for the under-fire Mark Boucher, whose non-performance with the bat has meant South Africa's tail starts at No. 7. "We would all like to see him fire," Kirsten said. "He [Boucher] fully acknowledges that it's important for him to fire at No. 7 for us and he doesn't need me to tell him that. He knows it."

Kirsten's words tell of the in-betweens that Smith could not see as he was too caught up in the moment. It's the blooding of new players, the contributions of old hands and the vision for the Test team in the coming months. In some ways it shows the map for the future being laid out, in others it points to a lack of ruthlessness, which is probably the primary reason for South Africa's inability to cross their final frontier this time.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Randolph on November 23, 2011, 12:43 GMT

    @Mitcher, brilliantly put. We have had 8 in history, they have that in the current squad. Says it all really.

  • Andrew on November 23, 2011, 0:59 GMT

    @Shan156 - England only have to do well in Asia to maintain their #1 rankings & show they are a dynasty in the making. If they fail in Asia it will just mean they are a good side outside of Asia & can concentrate on Ashes battles & the possibles v probables Sth Africa games!

  • Mick on November 23, 2011, 0:30 GMT

    @Shan156: Of course there is hypocrisy in these arguments about players representing countries they were not born in. I guess the difference with your exampes is you had to go back more than 20 years to dig up three for Australia. There are more than that in the current England set-up. Also, from your Australian examples only Wessels didn't learn his cricket in the country and that is a special case with apartheid. Your point that it was English players who dominated Australia during the Ashes is true, making it all the sadder England feel the need to continually poach South Africans when it seems they have their own quality home-produced players.

  • Shanmugam on November 22, 2011, 21:00 GMT

    @harshthakor, fair comments but England really need to do well in the sub-continent before we can call them an outstanding test team. I am an England fan, btw and would nothing better in cricket than seeing England become an outstanding team. But, for once I will agree with a lot of Indian fans in this board in saying that they have to do well in the sub-continent:-) I am confident they will. Their chance will come in 2012 what with three tough away series and a tough home series. Hard to imagine England winning all 4 of 'em but not impossible.

  • Shanmugam on November 22, 2011, 20:55 GMT

    @warnerbasher, South Africa B, eh? Please enlighten us - where were Usman Khawaja and Andrew Symonds born? What about Kepler Wessels? The real scourge of the Aussies in that tour was an Englishman named Alastair Cook. The bowling attack was all English too.

  • Shanmugam on November 22, 2011, 18:52 GMT

    @PTtheAxis, SA last beat India in India in 2000. They won the two test series 2-0. They last beat SL away in 1993. I think Firdose is referring to SA's record since their readmission to test cricket.

  • P on November 22, 2011, 16:01 GMT

    nothing said against smith - the real reason for loss - not as a batsman but as a captain.

  • david on November 22, 2011, 15:22 GMT

    u cannot say its a batters paradise on the 1st day it has to go 5 days. the problem is when india / sl play 2 spinner 2 seamers and open with spinners then thats a problem not that that happened today. a test should go to the start of day 4 then start to spin. what gets peoples back up, is wickets from day 1 takes excessive turn. when this happens how on earth to india think they can use this format, and expect seamers to win them test abroad.dpk

  • raymond on November 22, 2011, 15:13 GMT

    Harshthakor you have it absolutely right - perhaps a career in sports journalism beckons?

  • Dru on November 22, 2011, 12:34 GMT

    I am not sure how either side won or lost this series but Vernon was a sensation as was Amla which is nothing new. Kallis had a quiet series for a change and Smith did the job when it mattered most and too many Saffies forget about Smith's back to the wall innings over the years. I think Tahir done enough given the opportunities - definitley more than Harris did in a few years - like spin a few for a start! If the role SA has in mind for their spinner is one of holding by bowling harmless darts then a leg spinner is the wrong option. Rudolph needs more than two tests to prove himself and showed enough. Boucher only made the knives sharper and Prince did what he has done in the last last few series - just enough to stay afloat. 4 home series without a loss with this team is of serious concern. Lets face its a tailor made attack for the conditions and the batting is second to none - if your not going to win at home with side questions need to be asked.

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