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Mark Taylor became the first visiting captain to win a Test series in South Africa since they returned to official international cricket in 1991. But although it was Australia's sixth successive series win (excluding a one-off defeat by India), Taylor ended the tour with his position in doubt. His form was such that, after averaging 16 over the three Tests and scoring seven and 17 in the first two one-day internationals, he dropped himself for the remaining five games. He had gone 20 innings without a Test fifty, and the fact that he lasted long enough to reach double figures more often than not led his critics to believe that his decline was not a temporary run of bad luck. Taylor was constantly under fire from the travelling media. But he earned respect and admiration from neutral observers for the unflustered and honest way that he dealt with personal questions.
Australia also won the seven-match one-day international series - South Africa's first defeat in a limited-overs series or tournament on home soil since early 1993. It was a surprise result, as Australia had won only five limited-overs games out of 18 following their defeat in the 1996 World Cup final. South Africa had suffered only two defeats in 24 matches in that time, but paid for their tactical error at Centurion Park, where they opted to risk bowling with a wet ball.
The only disappointing feature of a magnificently successful tour for Australia was the poor attendances at the three Tests. Only 135,209 spectators paid to watch what was billed as the unofficial championship of world cricket - compared with 193,739 who watched India earlier in the summer. The lesson for South Africa administrators was the two short series are not the best option; future tours by West Indies and England have been scheduled for five Tests each.
Australia won the first two Tests in spite of, not because of, the balance of their side. They opted to play an extra batsman and fielded only three specialist bowlers - Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne - backed up by the emerging wrist-spin of Michael Bevan; had Bevan batted at No. 6, they could have included a third pace bowler. Only the inability of South Africa's batsmen to come to terms with Warne and Bevan enabled this gamble to succeed. It could have failed in the marvellous Second Test at St George's Park, and it did fail at Centurion, when the overworked McGrath finally broke down.
Many records were broken in the First Test at The Wanderers, when Greg Blewett and Steve Waugh added 385 and became the tenth pair of batsmen to bat through an entire day of a Test match. Then Mark Waugh played the key role in the Second Test, scoring 116 to seal a remarkable two-wicket victory. Australia had looked down and out in a low-scoring game on a pitch cynically prepared to tame Warne and Bevan. It was poetic justice that the two wrist-spinners took eight wickets between them.
The effect that the winning margin of the First Test - an innings and 196 runs - had on both sides was reflected in selection policy. Australia fielded the same 11 players in all three Tests, while the home selectors chose 16, with only two changes forced by injury (to Brain McMillan and Shaun Pollock). South Africa's problems stemmed from a top order that was shuffled around in baffling fashion: there were three inexperienced batsmen in the top six on the poor pitch at Port Elizabeth. It became clear that until they found a class No. 3 South Africa would always struggle against the best opposition.
Gary Kirsten had his first poor series, which meant that it was a mistake to drop the experienced Andrew Hudson and Jonty Rhodes after the First Test. Allan Donald started slowly, but found his top form and rhythm for the Third Test, where eight wickets took him to 155 in his 33 Tests, only 15 behind South Africa's leading wicket-taker, Hugh Tayfield. In the same game, Brett Schultz made an encouraging return to the side after 16 months, and Pat Symcox proved his worth when he replaced Paul Adams. All three helped to propel South Africa to their only win. Adams had never been a threat, and the difference in the spinners' returns - 20 wickets for Australia, seven for South Africa - was a major factor in the visitors' triumph.
And triumph it was, especially for Steve Waugh, who won his third successive Man of the Series award against South Africa. He was the only batsman on either side to exceed 300 runs in the Tests and an average of 78.25 underlined his importance in an inconsistent top order. His brother, Mark, played one of the best fourth-innings Test knocks in living memory, but 93 runs from his other four innings reflected his tendency to sacrifice his wicket to poor strokes. Blewett scored a double-hundred in the First Test, and it said just as much for his temperament as his technique. In the same match, Matthew Elliott enhanced his reputation by making 85 and building a platform for the mammoth partnership between Blewett and Steve Waugh. But Bevan had a poor series with the bat, as did Matthew Hayden, who was dropped for the Ashes tour.
The bowling find of the series was Gillespie. He took 14 wickets, more than any bowler on either side; yet, had Reiffel been fit, he might not have played. Quicker than McGrath, Gillespie used a similar method, bowling from close to the stumps with a high action. He swung the ball away from the right-hander, and played his full part in the Port Elizabeth win with match figures of eight for 103. The home authorities mostly tried to prepare pitches for Donald and Co, but McGrath and Gillespie were the major beneficiaries. Warne's 11 wickets came at an average of 25.63, but he conceded barely two an over; his stock bowling in totally unsuitable conditions in the Second Test showed he is more than a great wrist-spinner, or even a great slow bowler. He is simply a great bowler.
The series was played in good spirit, despite some variable umpiring, particularly in the Third Test when neither Mervyn Kitchen nor Cyril Mitchley distinguished himself. Referee Raman Subba Row disciplined Ian Healy at the end of the game, in which Healy had become only the second wicket-keeper - following Rod Marsh - to claim 300 Test victims. He was suspended for the first two one-day internationals for dissent and throwing his bat after he was given out caught behind. On his return, he took over the captaincy form Taylor.
With their one-day success following their Test series win, Australia swept all before them prior to embarking on their tour of England while, for the first time since their return to Test cricket, South Africa's season ended with players and selectors under fire.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Nicky Oppenheimer XI v Australians at Randjesfontein, Feb 13, 1997
Tour Match: Western Province v Australians at Cape Town, Feb 15-17, 1997
Tour Match: Boland v Australians at Paarl, Feb 18, 1997
Tour Match: Natal v Australians at Durban, Feb 20-22, 1997
Tour Match: Transvaal Invitation XI v Australians at Soweto, Feb 25, 1997
Tour Match: Border v Australians at East London, Mar 7-8, 1997
Tour Match: Eastern Province Invitation XI v Australians at Zwide, Mar 11, 1997