New Australia, same old hostility

David Warner is engulfed after helping to run out AB de Villiers Getty Images

Like a family heirloom, the concept of verbal hostility on the field of play is passed from one generation of Australian cricketers to the next. There were times during a hot-tempered and endlessly watchable day four at Kingsmead that recalled angry days in the past, as a young Australian side sought to make its own mark on South Africa.

It was four years ago, amid an Australian victory over South Africa in Cape Town, that Faf du Plessis described the team then led by Michael Clarke as "like a pack of dogs" in the way they swarmed around an opposition batsman in the field. During that series and the preceding encounter with England, the Australians reached peaks of hostility that left angry words to be exchanged between Clarke and Dale Steyn at the end of the Newlands Test and the teams to socialise separately that evening.

Australia had beaten both England and South Africa playing cricket of a high standard and an unmistakable hostility, the intensity of which renewed debate about the way the team plays in moments of pressure. Within the Australian team, there was total certainty about this being the most effective way to win; outside it, there was no little conjecture about how this method, however effective, looked. But the bottom line was that the results went Australia's way, further entrenching the team's view that this was how they won. In the words of Nathan Lyon, the Australians play the game while "headbutting" the line between aggression and transgression.

This time around, that level of hostility was revisited as Steven Smith's team sought to bury a Proteas side chasing 417 for victory, and grew in intensity as the commendably upright Aiden Markram frustrated their efforts to do so. Seemingly it started not with the beginning of the South African innings but the arrival of AB de Villiers, who before facing a ball was immediately talking to the umpires. When he was turned back from a quick single by Markram and run out by David Warner and Lyon, the line was headbutted with a force more Zinedine Zidane than Jonny Bairstow - the "pack of dogs" were back.

Lyon, upon breaking the stumps, took particular interest in a prone, diving de Villiers as he ran past him, and dropped the ball so closely in his vicinity that it fell between the batsman's body and one of his batting gloves. At the same time, Warner was yelling at the top of his lungs in Markram's direction, manically mouthing words that looked like "why'd you do that" among other things. Australian celebrations about getting de Villiers in such a manner, and having an opportunity to get inside the head of Markram at the same time, were summed up by the wicketkeeper Tim Paine.

"Obviously it was a huge wicket. You put a lot of planning into how you're going to bowl to someone like AB de Villiers, so to have him run out for zero is - I think that gets everyone a little bit excited," Paine said. "The boys were certainly pumped up to see him going back. We think he's their best player, to have him back in the sheds for zero was a huge confidence boost for us. But we also know how good the rest of their side is.

"We knew there was going to be some fight at some stage, and we certainly got that and we expect that to continue throughout the series. That's what happens when you've got two great sides playing against each other. It was a big moment in the game - probably even bigger now that you look back and see how they played after that. and how the wicket didn't help us as much as we thought it may have.

"We spoke to Aiden about running out their best player and one of the best players in the world. I think had someone run Smithy out in our team you'd cop a fair bit of a ribbing. It was nothing aggressive. It was just reminding him of what he had just done, trying to get him off his game, the same as they do to us. It didn't work."

The fact that it did not work was to be demonstrated as Markram and Theunis de Bruyn regrouped. The latter became embroiled in some fiery exchanges with Mitchell Starc in between deliveries and boundaries. Sometimes, a fast bowler starting to get involved in a war of words with a batsman denotes nothing so much as frustration and a loss of concentration on the task.

But it was telling about the way Australia's players see the game that from behind the stumps, Paine was happy to hear Starc raise his voice. For the way the Australians play is the way that they have been raised to play, at junior, club and state levels, and having all copped it themselves at various times, they are always eager for opportunities to dish it out where useful.

"It was good to see actually. We enjoy it when Starcy is up and about like that and at the batters, because he bowls at high pace and can create chances all the time," Paine said. "It wasn't his session during the middle but he showed what he can do when the ball starts to reverse-swing - or hopefully tomorrow when he gets the new ball in his hand. He's such a dangerous, fast, left-arm bowler that it's a delight to have him in your team."

"For Markram, the experience was akin to the introduction to cricket the Australian Test team way that another young South African batsman had endured back in 2002 - Graeme Smith"

In the final session, Starc's exchanges stretched from the middle of the ground to the boundary, where he replied to numerous choice remarks by a group of young South African spectators at fine leg. Here, too, was a bit of deja vu, recalling a tamer version of the day Merv Hughes swung his bat at a fence at the Wanderers in Johannesburg after being harangued by a spectator as he jogged up towards the dressing room during a rain delay. This time security arrived to calm fans down before things escalated, but it was another moment speaking to the edge on which the Australians were playing.

For Markram, the experience was akin to the introduction to cricket the Australian Test team way that another young South African batsman had endured back in 2002 - Graeme Smith. In a detailed interview with Sports Illustrated, Smith later recounted more or less exactly how he had been targeted by Matthew Hayden, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, in a departure from the "what happens on the field, stays on the field" mantra commonly stated by the Australians. But he was able to get through it with plenty of credit, not only surviving the reaction to the run-out but thriving in one of the finest innings ever seen at Kingsmead.

"That was a massive challenge today, as well," Markram said. "It's natural when you play against the Australians that there's a lot of chatter on the field. Something that I certainly don't mind, something that keeps me in the game and keeps me going, keeps me motivated. And it never really gets out of line either, not a lot of swearing or things like that happen. There are a few here and there but it's not the end of the world.

"I believe it's part of the game. It's how the game should be played, nice and hard, and makes success that bit more rewarding. I think just having what happened [with the run out] did affect me a little bit and you hear every word out on the field but I don't speak back on the field, I try to just get on with what I do and it's always going to be there, it's part of the Australian side to keep chatting to batters but it's something I really do enjoy, it'll keep coming for the rest of the series, but I enjoy it."

Discussion about whether the Australian side needs to play in this way will carry on long after this match concludes, but it was perhaps telling that the moment the day tilted definitively towards Smith's side had less to do with intimidation than it did with physical durability, alertness of mind and fierce concentration. Mitchell Marsh, sore after a fall in the field, was brought on to bowl as Markram and Quinton de Kock pulled ever closer to the target. Paine came up to the stumps, and found rapid reward when a Markram edge slapped neatly into his gloves.

It was a reminder that for all the bluster, the other tradition carried from generation to generation of Australian players is the pursuit of excellence. How much that excellence has to do with "aggression", "hostility", "sledging", "mental disintegration" or any other of those buzz words is a question that will continue to be asked - especially when Australia perform as well as they have in Durban.