March 12, 2002

Australia still top of the pile after clinching series at Newlands

All things considered, Australia could hardly have picked a better way to finish the match, clinch the series and retain the World Test Championship title. At one end was Shane Warne, playing his 100th Test and shortly to be named man of the match; at the other Ricky Ponting whose six off the last ball sealed Australia's four-wicket victory and carried him to an unbeaten 100.

Set 331 to win their fifth Test of the summer against South Africa, Steve Waugh's Australians got home halfway between lunch and tea on the last day at Newlands on Tuesday.

They had been given a blistering start on Monday evening by Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden and at least until lunch seem to be coasting to victory. Hayden missed his fifth century of the summer against South Africa by just four runs when for once his shot selection let him down and his was caught behind off Jacques Kallis and Mark Waugh was out on the stoke of lunch, also caught at the wicket, this time off Makhaya Ntini.

But 251 for three, Australia were all but home until South Africa, who fought doggedly throughout the game, produced one last spurt. Paul Adams nipped out Steve Waugh and Damien Martyn in successive overs and it suddenly became just a little tighter, even more so when Adam Gilchrist got out for the first time in the series for 24 (to average 366).

It was still Australia's game to be won, but Warne had to cast aside the ice packs and see his side home. In what was to be the penultimate over, he hit Kallis twice through the off side to reduce the target to just three, apologising both times to Ponting who was stuck down at the other end on 94.

He needn't have worried. Adams produced a friendly long hop, Ponting hoisted him over the ropes and the Test, series and championship had been decided.

It had been an excellent Test match with South Africa's three new caps firing the side with fresh enthusiasm and fight and Adams coming back to complete 100 Test wickets. For once Australia had been challenged, as Steve Waugh readily admitted afterwards.

"It was certainly up there (among the best Test matches he has been involved in)," he said. "At the end of day three I thought South Africa were marginally on top. It was a very good performance. We hung in through the tough periods and those two run-outs probably swung the match for us."

South African captain Mark Boucher had a slightly different take on it, citing the Hayden-Langer stand as having taken the match away from South Africa on the fourth evening. He conceded that on the last day he often found himself caught between wanting to attack and having to defend, but while he said he was disappointed to have lost, "I'm proud of the way the guys fought. We showed the sort of guts that have been missing for the past few games".

In the end, though, Australia found match-winning performances from Warne - "He writes his own scripts," observed Waugh - who took six for 161 in an astonishing 70 overs, Gilchrist, who made a sublime 138 not out in the first innings, Ponting and, of course, Hayden.

"I didn't see Bradman bat," said Waugh. "But he couldn't have been much better than that."

Given that South Africa were widely regarded as the only serious threat to Australia's supremacy at the start of the summer, Steve Waugh's team have now confirmed their standing as the best Test team in the world today. For once the South Africans found the stomach for a fight, but yet again Australia's confidence, aggression and skill prevailed.

Few will begrudge them this particular moment of triumph.