March 18, 2002

South Africa finally find the spirit to match Australia

Reflecting on South Africa's five-wicket victory over Australia at Kingsmead on Monday, acting captain Mark Boucher made a revealing admission.

After the humiliation in the first Test at the Wanderers, he said, some of South Africa's senior players realised they needed to win back lost friends. He was talking about a cricket-loving public, battered for two years since the Hansiegate Scandal and now having to deal with defeat after defeat after Australia played out against a backdrop of political bickering coupled with incomprehensible selection policies, official arrogance and administrative confusion.

"Sometimes you need a bit of a knock to realise that, yes, you're a cricketer and, yes, you're a role model, but you're not bigger than the game," he said.

It would be stretching a point to say that just one win after five successive hammerings by Australia has put everything right with South African cricket, but there is also little doubt that Kingsmead, as at Newlands a week ago, South Africa finally found it within themselves to compete with Australia.

The last day at Kingsmead was not as tight and as tense as expected. Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince - Boucher had special praise for Prince, saying that he had shown "maturity beyond his years" - weathered the expected the early storm as Australia made use of a new ball only three overs old before settling in.

There were, to be honest, few alarms for the South Africans. Prince had an airy swish in Glenn McGrath's first over, but thereafter buckled down and Kallis, as might have been expected, batted with calm assurance, looking as immovable as he has all summer.

The pair chipped away at the 335 target, making light of South Africa's wobble on Sunday afternoon when Mark Waugh initiated a mini-collapse. The stand mounted even as Steve Waugh swapped McGrath and Brett Lee for Shane Warne and Jason Gillespie, and the realisation gradually dawned around Kingsmead that for once the South Africans were mentally tough enough to withstand Australia.

There was a minor personal tragedy for Prince before the end when he nicked Warne to Mark Waugh at slip to go for 48 after a partnership that had produced 99 for South Africa, but only four more were needed at that stage and Boucher finished it off with a six, leaving Kallis unbeaten on 61.

It was the highest fourth innings score chased and achieved by South Africa and the eighth highest in Test history. Both of which facts put the pitch, which played magnificently throughout, into true perspective.

Steve Waugh made few excuses afterwards, saying that: "South Africa applied themselves really well in the last innings and that got them across the line."

He also said that the mental fatigue of playing back-to-back Tests probably accounted for the distracted batting in the first three innings of the game.

So the series, then, is over with Australia having retained their world championship title. They have been the better team than South Africa, as Boucher readily admitted, and it is a pity that it took until the fifth and sixth meetings of the summer before the South Africans finally worked out how to be competitive.

Boucher said that his side had learned a lot from Australia, not the least lesson being the intensity that Steve Waugh and his team brought to the contests.

For Waugh, it was a flat finale. He noted that he would feel a little odd on Monday night packing to go home while many of his team-mates turned their attention to the one-day series that starts in Johannesburg on Friday.

It is not the end of his career - he will rejoin Australia for the Test matches against Zimbabwe - but it is almost certainly his last Test match against South Africa. And as much as South Africans love to hate Australians, many will miss the sight of the world's most famous battered green baggy.