<
>

The chaotic contrasts of two captains

play
'Our captain did nothing wrong' - Amla (4:27)

Hashim Amla, backed by the entire squad, asked for common sense to prevail as he believes Faf du Plessis is not guilty of the impending ball-tampering charge. (4:27)

A captain sits in a basement, a solitary figure, under siege. Confronted by glaring lights and uncomfortable questions, he speaks of embarrassment, of humiliation. He pleads for players who will stand with him and fight. A leader of a broken team that stems from a broken system and will now be scattered across the country to play in a domestic competition that is, quite literally, broken in two. Some of them will not return.

A captain stands on the boundary edge at the MCG, a solitary figure, under siege. He doesn't speak at all. Instead, he quietly watches as his new charges stand shoulder to shoulder, behind their most senior member, who does all the talking. Their faces are angry, the words are defiant and the message is clear: we're here to fight for our captain.

The contrast between the two scenes is clear.

The rest is chaos.

****

A dead rubber has suddenly taken on enormous significance for both sides: one in a frantic race to piece together the fragments after two shattering defeats and to avoid a historic whitewash, the other in a battle to prove the integrity of the man who has led them to this famous series victory.

Observers and fans are lining up on either side to condemn the other. The Australians are sore losers, they say; they blamed the pitches in Sri Lanka and now they are blaming breath mints. The South Africans are cheats, they say, led by a convicted cheat, and now we know why their bowlers can swing the ball so well.

Lost is the fact the Australian camp didn't make a complaint and at least one senior figure in Australian cricket supports everything Amla said at Saturday's extraordinary press conference.

South Africa must contest the charge after such a strong display but clearly feel so aggrieved that such a stance is warranted. The last time Melbourne saw anything like this, it was a rugby league team - the Melbourne Storm - walking shoulder to shoulder across a field in a show of solidarity amidst a salary cap scandal. Storm were stripped of their premierships; South Africa will hope their brothers-in-arms moment has a happier result.

Mints, chewing gum, Brylcreem, sunscreen, lip balm, sweat, saliva, dirt, zippers, energy drinks, bottle tops, biltong, teeth and even Red Frogs (a chewy candy) - surely, the most surreal - are being offered as alchemical ingredients that, when combined with leather, produce swinging gold. Or not.

Everyone is suddenly an expert on the science behind a reversing ball when, in reality, bowlers who can find reverse often can't explain the physics that cause it or predict when it will happen.

In a game fighting for relevance and survival, threatened by flat pitches and dominated by big bats, the art of reverse can undoubtedly bring bowlers back into the contest. Players jump up to claim everyone does it and only the unlucky are spotted; that will be a difficult defence to mount if the ICC determines South Africa's captain used saliva - only in cricket could spittle be so highly scrutinised - mixed with an artificial substance to shine the ball. Perhaps it's the laws that deserve the scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the Sheffield Shield is suddenly the most keenly followed domestic competition since the Big Bash rolled into town. The contenders and the condemned are graded day by day, session by session. Rod Marsh may have absconded but the entire nation has replaced him. Armchair, laptop and Twitter selectors name their XI and conduct heated selection meetings in the comments section.

Blood young players, some experts cry. Pick the best players, regardless of age, insist others. Remember Mike Hussey? Yeah, well, what about the mid-80s? That turned out okay.

Officials point to the recent success of Australia A and maintain the future is bright while past players claim the present was ruined by altering the Futures League. The man who introduced those changes, since abandoned, is now an Australian interim selector. Budding Mike Husseys abandon hope.

A red ball is being used to audition for a pink-ball Test. A few weeks ago, a pink ball was used to prepare for a red-ball Test. The irony? That Australia were confident enough that the series would still be alive in Adelaide to think pink-ball practice was relevant before the opening match in Perth. They also assumed their Test batsmen would have earned a rest this week, so wouldn't be playing in the Shield anyway.

****

Amid the cacophony, two captains must prepare their sides for a Test that has no bearing on the series and, yet, suddenly has so much meaning.

On one side, an unknown squad, pulled together by an embarrassed leader needs somehow to conjure victory in a losing cause and restore some pride.

On the other, a leader who may be under a cloud - who may not even play - but is secure in the knowledge all of his players will fight for him, both on and off the field.

And for that, alone, Steven Smith must envy Faf du Plessis.