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Australians were deeply offended by the fact that a draw in either of their back-to-back series against South Africa would be enough to dislodge them from the top of the ICC Test Championship. Steve Waugh's team had seen off the first half of the challenge at home, giving South Africa such a hammering that the return series might have been a foregone conclusion. But they arrived in February, the tail end of the African summer, when rain is always a threat, and the possibility that they could be dethroned without a ball being bowled meant there was no shortage of motivation for Australia.
Amazingly, there was no shortage of optimism in South Africa, although it soon turned out to be more a desperate need to stop the pain than a coherent belief that Shaun Pollock's team could actually slay the giant. In the event, Pollock missed all three Tests with a knee injury, fatally weakening the attack, which became even thinner when Allan Donald broke down on the first day of the series and then announced his retirement from Test cricket. His tally of 330 wickets in 72 matches was easily a South African record.
The captaincy passed to Pollock's deputy, the wicket-keeper Mark Boucher, who lost his first Test in charge, at Johannesburg, by an innings and 360 runs. It was the second-heaviest defeat in Test history. "I don't care about the margin of defeat or records," Boucher responded. "Every loss hurts just the same."
Most supporters did care about the scale of the humiliation. The Second Test, at Cape Town, brought four changes to the home side, including three debuts. The Gauteng all-rounder Andrew Hall was picked to provide the team with backbone, not to mention a verbal riposte or two, after surviving a hijacking, two muggings and a shooting. The swing bowler Dewald Pretorius was rewarded for a fine domestic season, though he was to struggle at Test level. More successful was the powerful left-handed opener Graeme Smith, not unlike a young Graeme Pollock in stance and physique, who was given a chance at No. 3. Paul Adams, Test cricket's least orthodox left-arm spinner, was recalled after nearly a year on the sidelines. With another left-hander, Ashwell Prince, playing his second Test, it was the freshest South African team since readmission in 1991.
The newcomers supplied a welcome antidote to the staggering cynicism shown by one of the country's most senior players on the eve of the match. Daryll Cullinan was called up after several months off with a knee injury, and there was talk of his leading the side when he joined them in Cape Town. But he immediately demanded a national contract for 13 months, until the end of the 2003 World Cup, even though he had previously retired from one-day cricket. When this was refused - the board said they did not offer contracts in mid-season until a player had appeared in two Tests or six one-day internationals, and in any case all current contracts were to expire in April - he refused to play and flew back to Johannesburg. A widespread sense of expectation at the prospect of Cullinan renewing his battle with Shane Warne was frustrated.
Hours later, the new boys appeared at a joint press conference. Led by the 21-year-old Smith, they spoke with passion of the pride they felt. From that point on, South Africa gradually started to compete. They held out for five days in Cape Town before losing a close-fought encounter, and finally registered a victory at Durban a week later. No amount of praise would flatter Australia, and especially Adam Gilchrist. Even those who had seen 100 or more Tests were astonished by Gilchrist's performance - 473 runs at 157, including what was then the fastest double-hundred in Test cricket. Matthew Hayden brought his prodigious form with him from the first series, narrowly missing five centuries in consecutive Tests. For Steve and Mark Waugh, it was a lean spell that wore on. Steve had been told before departure that he was losing the one-day captaincy to Ricky Ponting, who had a highly successful tour. During the Tests, the twins learned that they were to be dropped altogether from the one-day squad. But their poor Test form simply allowed Gilchrist to spend more time at the crease. Australia scored five Test centuries, South Africa just one - from Herschelle Gibbs.
The scoreboard operators could hardly keep up with Australia's flow of runs, and the flair with which they were scored gave the impression that their batsmen were solely responsible for winning the series. In reality, for the umpteenth time, Warne and Glenn McGrath were instrumental in Australia's triumph. McGrath took 12 wickets at 19, while Warne took 20 and moved into second place in the all-time Test wicket-takers' list. In his 100th Test, at Newlands, he put in a heroic effort, bowling 70 overs in a single innings, and claimed the match award.
The Australians were tactically as well as technically superior in every respect. But the gulf wasn't as wide as the embarrassing scorelines suggested. Above all, it was the imposition of Australia's collective character that the South Africans could not handle - the fact that they were constantly "there", with bat, ball or in the field. After the defeat at Durban, they swiftly hit back to cement their domination: Ponting became the first touring captain to win a one-day series in South Africa since Mark Taylor, one of his predecessors, in 1996-97. Despite the return of Pollock, Australia went five up before conceding one more consolation win. They left the local population with a nasty feeling that they might never beat them over a series again.
Match reports for
Tour Match: South Africa A v Australians at Potchefstroom, Feb 17-19, 2002
Tour Match: South Africa A v Australians at Port Elizabeth, Mar 1-3, 2002