On the eve of the First Test at Adelaide, South Africa's captain, Shaun Pollock, was asked by a photographer to pose beside the ICC Test Championship mace. He declined, politely, on superstitious grounds: he had posed with the World Cup 30 months earlier, and South Africa's exit from that tournament at Australia's hands was a memory he preferred not to revisit.
Pollock's refusal to tempt the fates was wise, but he added to his bad memories anyway. Though the ICC tabulations said South Africa would replace Australia as Championship leaders by winning or drawing this three-Test rubber, they never looked like contenders. The tourists were thrice disposed of by big margins, with ample time to spare, and in some disarray.
For Australia, the encounter put further flesh on an already far-from-bony case to be considered the outstanding cricket team of the last decade. The latest weapon in their line-up was the left-handed opening combination of Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer; a faute de mieux arrangement in England had flowered on home soil. The hulking Hayden was overpowering, scoring his 429 runs at a strike-rate of around 60 per hundred balls. Always busy, always acquisitive, Langer was less eye-catching but little less effective, having turned his recall at The Oval into a new lease on life. By the end of the series, their average partnership was a hearty 117.90, including four double-century stands in 11 innings.
What the openers left incomplete, Damien Martyn polished off at No. 6, with compact technique and crisp timing. It was hard to believe his centuries at Adelaide and Sydney were his first in home Tests, such was Martyn's composure in the presence of the tail and easeful manipulation of the strike. The Waughs and Gilchrist were less productive than usual, but never really needed.
Despite fielding only four specialist bowlers in each match, Australia's attack contained sufficient variety to cover most contingencies. After their unsuccessful series against New Zealand, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were back to their usual steady selves. Brett Lee improved as the Tests progressed, beating Herschelle Gibbs at Sydney with a ball that went through him like an X-ray. The horses-for-courses selections - Andy Bichel in Melbourne and Stuart MacGill in Sydney - paid off nicely, and all were abetted by fielding of the highest quality. Ricky Ponting's 11 catches contained some which justified the invention of the television replay.
Yet it was hard to credit that Pollock's team arrived with pretensions to world-champion status. Glimpses of the excellence of Jacques Kallis and Gary Kirsten, and of the promise of Neil McKenzie and Boeta Dippenaar, usually came only when the cause was already lost. The translation of starts into scores was also disappointing: Australian batsmen reached double figures 30 times, on a dozen occasions passing fifty, and on seven transiting to a hundred; their South African counterparts reached double figures 36 times, but only made nine fifties, and one century - by Kirsten, at the very last.
The South African pace bowlers, meanwhile, seemed to have lost the power to coax any sideways movement from the ball. Even Pollock swung it only in Sydney, while Kallis, Nantie Hayward and Allan Donald were persevering rather than hostile. The left-arm spinner Claude Henderson made a useful beginning, but was steadily swept and reverse-swept into submission. His colleague Nicky Boje, recovering from knee tendonitis, arrived too late.
Lance Klusener was the chief disappointment. His pick-up was so crooked and bat face so closed that he seemed incapable of scoring on the off side, while his bowling was so ineffectual that he was not introduced in Melbourne until the 110th over, when Australia were already 407 for four. He was sent home before the Sydney Test, a forlorn shadow of the figure who was named Man of the Tournament in the last World Cup.
The other contrast was between the captains. Steve Waugh not only won three crucial tosses, but was masterful at exerting pressure; it was remarkable how often the Australians turned one wicket into two or three. Pollock followed predictable patterns, and was slow to exploit opportunities. Support bowlers were left on when strike bowlers should have been called up, and hours would elapse with fields essentially unaltered - by comparison, Hansie Cronje seemed like Edward de Bono. The South Africans appeared professional, insofar as their game was utterly joyless. But Pollock could plead that he hardly had the sort of solid reinforcement on which Waugh could rely, not from his team, and certainly not from his board.
There were rumblings throughout the tour of discontent with management, before the Third Test generated an unedifying public dispute. The selectors had pencilled in the 20-year-old Jacques Rudolph for his Test debut at No. 3 to relieve pressure on the out-of-form Dippenaar, who was to be given refuge at No. 6. But the evening before the match, Percy Sonn, the president of the United Cricket Board, rejected the team as submitted and demanded the inclusion of Justin Ontong, a coloured batsman. Although the UCB quota of one "player of colour" was satisfied by the inclusion of Gibbs, and Ontong had collected a pair in his only match of the tour, Sonn invoked a statute committing the board to promoting non-whites wherever possible. The proposed reshuffle of the order, he said, amounted to the "exclusion of a person of colour who has the right to be given the opportunity". Ontong replaced Rudolph, who had already missed out on one Test debut - he had played in the Centurion game with India which was denied official status.
Sonn managed to be simultaneously uncompromising and contradictory. On the one hand, he claimed his intercession was affirmative action at work; on the other, he suggested the selectors had indulged in gerrymandering in excluding Ontong, and that he had interposed to ensure selection on merit. This is not to dispute the legitimacy of affirmative action, or even the efficacy of quotas; it was merely staggering that there should have been ambiguity on the issue, and that Sonn should have interfered so clumsily and autocratically. His comment that, as professionals, Pollock's team would simply do as they were told smacked of cricket administration at its old-fashioned feudal worst. An anonymous player told Johannesburg's Star that players were "angry and frustrated" that "administrators like Sonn, who know very little about cricket, come out and put the skids under us". In the end, Ontong had a decent match, and in the one-day series which followed South Africa turned their game around, beating New Zealand in the finals. But to work out that Sonn's intervention was an ill omen for South African cricket did not require a superstitious nature.
Match reports for
ACB Chairman's XI v South Africans at Perth (Lilac Hill), Dec 5, 2001
Western Australia v South Africans at Perth, Dec 7-10, 2001
New South Wales v South Africans at Sydney, Dec 20-23, 2001
Australia A v South Africans at Adelaide, Jan 10, 2002