Test matches (3): Australia 1, South Africa 2
South Africa won their third successive Test series in Australia, something they had never managed in their eight visits before 2008-09. They did so by producing some high-quality cricket in the first two matches, and wrapped things up by the time they had to play their first pink-ball Test, at Adelaide. It was unfortunate that, by then, the headlines focused on their captain, Faf du Plessis, spotted on TV applying saliva to the ball while sucking a sweet - technically, a breach of the Laws.
The incident was inevitably dubbed "Mintgate". In the circumstances, the hundred du Plessis made at Adelaide was a triumph, even though it couldn't prevent defeat. But to win the series without A. B. de Villiers, who missed the whole tour after an operation on his troublesome left elbow, and Dale Steyn, who broke his shoulder early in the First Test, was a remarkable effort. South Africa were helped by a change in the scheduling. Australia usually start their home summers in Brisbane, where they have a fine record. But the Gabba had already been given a day/night match against Pakistan later in the season, so the series began in Perth. A superb second-innings effort, based on centuries from Dean Elgar and J-P. Duminy, consigned Australia to a shock defeat. Quinton de Kock then scored a hundred in a thumping victory at Hobart. The lone cloud on the batting horizon was the slump of Hashim Amla, who managed only 98 runs in five innings.
For the bowlers, the patient Kyle Abbott filled the gap left by Steyn, taking 13 wickets in the last two Tests, while Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander - back to his bouncy best - shared 27. The day/night Test in Adelaide was a rousing success, and convinced the previously sceptical South Africans - despite their defeat - that here was an experiment destined not just to survive, but thrive.
It was a sobering time for Australia, who called on 19 different players, including five debutants. One of them, 20-year-old Matt Renshaw, was born in England - which some locals thought even more embarrassing than being bowled out for 85 on the opening day at Hobart. Only Usman Khawaja managed a century, although an improved all-round performance at Adelaide, where the impressive new-ball pairing of Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc claimed six wickets apiece, quietened the critics.
But most of the flak, after the Second Test at least, was aimed at du Plessis. When the footage first emerged, South Africa dismissed suggestions of ball tampering as "laughable" and "a complete joke". The subsequent official charge by the ICC drew a closing of ranks. Four days after the Hobart match, Amla fronted a press conference at the MCG, backed up by the entire 30-man touring party in a PR exercise that backfired badly. Amla stumbled from one excuse to another, first claiming not to know anything about a practice which had been commonplace for years, then comparing sucking mints on the field to eating "nuts and biltong". He even asked whether players should be required to clean their teeth during breaks in play. He offered no explanation for why du Plessis had been filmed placing two fingers deep inside his mouth and then rubbing them on the ball: "Come on guys, we have to be realistic. He has done nothing wrong. It's ridiculous."
During the subsequent game against Victoria, the players openly toyed with jelly sweets and other confectionery, and conducted mock searches of each others' mouths. They may have thought it playful, but for the media it was a red rag. It didn't help when an Australian television news reporter was shoved out of the way by South African security officer, Zunaid Wadee, as the team arrived at Adelaide airport. Du Plessis, meanwhile, opened his mouth in front of the waiting snappers to reveal a large mint on his tongue. Whatever the tourists thought about the rights and wrongs of the regulations, they were showing scant respect for the officials charged with upholding them. Referee Andy Pycroft finally convened a disciplinary hearing, just under 48 hours before start of the pink-ball Test. Du Plessis was represented by a QC flown in from Melbourne, and by CSA's own lawyer, David Becker, via a video link.
But he largely led his own defence, suggesting initially he did not know he was guilty of any wrongdoing, before changing his line to "everyone does it". But he was found guilty, and fined his entire match fee, as well as three demerit points, the strongest sanction not to involve a suspension. Even so, CSA chief executive Haroon Lorgat appeared at the pre-match press conference to defend his captain, and said he would ask the ICC to clarify the "many grey areas" surrounding ball-shining, including the "academic and scientific debate".
David Richardson, the ICC chief executive, flew to Adelaide to explain the official stance. He admitted other teams used the tactic of shining the ball with artificial substances, and that it was "difficult to police", but pointed out that du Plessis had been caught in "obvious contravention of a clearly stated law of the game". Du Plessis contested the verdict, insisting: "I firmly believe I have done nothing wrong." The appeal was heard in Dubai shortly after the tour, and the punishment upheld by Michael Beloff QC, chairman of the ICC's Code of Conduct Commission. By then, the cricket had been almost forgotten.
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