This short series was completely overtaken by events, the cricket lost in the frenzied coverage of Hansie Cronje's fall from grace. He did not appear at any of the three matches, but his presence was ubiquitous: his name was on the lips of every spectator and writ large on every banner; it dominated every press interview.
The idea behind the games, forgotten in the media mêlée, was simple: this was the first leg of a money-spinning home-and-away series between the two strongest teams in one-day cricket. The second leg was scheduled to be played in an indoor stadium in Melbourne in August. It was a mouth-watering prospect. For South Africa, it was a chance for revenge after two titanic battles in the World Cup had seen Australia come off best. But then the roof caved in on South African cricket. The morning before the first match in Durban, their captain, Cronje, admitted he had "not been entirely honest" when, two days earlier, he denied involvement with Indian bookmakers. He was peremptorily sacked. The games went ahead, against a backdrop of one of the biggest scandals in cricket's history.
In the circumstances, South Africa's 2-1 victory was remarkable, given that the form of the teams had appeared to be travelling in opposite directions. Since the World Cup, Australia had won 20 of their 24 matches, including an unprecedented sequence of 13 interrupted by only one no-result, while South Africa's record was 13 from 21. Maybe Shaun Pollock, appointed South African captain at the age of 26, took heart from the 1998 Commonwealth Games, where he had led a young team to the gold medal by defeating a full-strength Australian side in the final. South Africa, though, had never won an official one-day series including Australia, despite each country having beaten the other 19 times, and Steve Waugh claimed that his current side was, if anything, more talented than the one that won the World Cup ten months earlier.
Even before the Cronje crisis, South Africa had been struggling to get into their stride in the absence of several experienced players. Paul Adams was injured, Daryll Cullinan had announced his retirement from the one-day game (a decision he later revoked) and Allan Donald had been dropped in advance of taking a sabbatical from international cricket to fulfil his commitment to Warwickshire. Yet when it mattered, the South Africans rose to the challenge. Showing the resilience of youth, they put the Cronje controversy from their minds and easily beat the jetlagged world champions at Kingsmead. They were outplayed at Newlands as the Australians reasserted their discipline, but bounced back impressively to take the series at the Wanderers. All three games were won by the side winning the toss and fielding, but only the last lived up to expectations.
Waugh was gracious in defeat. South Africa's recovery from the events that cost Cronje the captaincy had not surprised him, he said. It emphasised again that in cricket no individual was indispensable.
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