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The South Africans arrived with high hopes of recording their first Test series victory over Australia in four attempts since returning to the international fold. In the end, two factors counted against them. A familiar foe, Shane Warne, overcame unseasonal damp weather in the Sydney Test with some wristy magic, which included his 300th Test wicket. And in the Third Test at Adelaide, as the visitors looked set to square the series, uncharacteristically ragged fielding cost them dear. Ten catches went down as Australia just managed to stave off defeat and take the series 1-0.
There was a similar near-miss in the one-day series. South Africa dominated the qualifying stages, winning all four of their matches against Australia and losing only once, to New Zealand. But Australia turned the tables in the best-of-three finals, winning the last two games after another defeat in the first one. The South Africans also failed to win a first-class match on the tour, though they lost only the Test at Sydney.
It seemed almost as if, when pitted against Australia, the South Africans had an inferiority complex - not something they exhibit against other countries nor, indeed, in many other sports. Captaincy came into it too: sometimes, when comparing the thoughtful Mark Taylor with the rather mechanical Hansie Cronje, one was reminded of Dr Who outwitting the Daleks. In the Sydney Test, for example, Cronje delayed posting a short leg during a lightning spell from Allan Donald until after both Waughs had popped up inviting catches there. Later, Taylor positioned Ricky Ponting unusually close at mid-wicket, where he immediately took a sharp low catch to send Adam Bacher back. Good luck - or good judgment?
Their main problem remained the lack of a world-class batsman - a Lara, a Richards (Viv) or, come to that, a Richards (Barry). All their batsmen had workmanlike Test averages in the upper thirties, but none threatened to reach the magic 50 mark. The man most likely to, Daryll Cullinan, ran into trouble against his old nemesis, Warne, and was dropped for the last two Tests. And Cronje let himself down too often with reckless shots after patient starts. Jacques Kallis made an accomplished maiden Test century at Melbourne, and Gary Kirsten, the vice-captain, scored consistently, apart from a double failure in the defeat at Sydney. After the First Test, South African coach Bob Woolmer caused some amusement when he suggested that Bacher had returned to form, moving his feet well in a laboured innings of three in 53 minutes. But the canny Woolmer was proved right when Bacher, who started the tour wretchedly, followed this up with four useful scores.
The tourists had fewer problems in the fast bowling department, although they missed the steadiness of Fanie de Villiers, the match-winner at Sydney four years ago, who was overlooked this time. Donald, who became South Africa's leading Test wicket-taker at Melbourne, was a constant threat. One spell at Sydney, where he bowled after a pain-killing injection in his foot, was as fast as anyone could remember. It was a major blow when he pulled a buttock muscle in the closing stages of the one-day competition and had to miss the final Test. Shaun Pollock responded well in that match, taking seven for 87 on an unhelpful pitch, but Donald's absence probably allowed Australia to stave off defeat. Brian McMillan, who struggled with the bat until the final Test, looked past his best with the ball as well. There were signs of raw promise in Makhaya Ntini, the first black player to play for South Africa. He was given little scope but, in a rare one-day outing, he impressed with his pace with the ball, and, during the Sydney Test, with his fleetness of foot: he took part in an invitation 400-metre race on the outfield. Roared on by his team-mates, he hung on to win.
South Africa's spin reserves remained slender. Pat Symcox was a better-balanced, tighter off-spinner than on the previous visit, but still looked unlikely to run through a Test batting order. And, once they had recovered from the shock of seeing his action, the leading Australians were rarely troubled by Paul Adams, who was commendably accurate but needed to broaden the variety of his left-arm slows to succeed at the highest level.
This series saw the final bow of Dave Richardson, South Africa's polished wicket-keeper. At Melbourne, he broke the national record for Test dismissals, surpassing John Waite, to whom he bears quite a resemblance. There were occasional signs that his keeping had declined, and he made little impact with the bat, but he managed a rare stumping, his second in Tests and, as it turned out, his last. He also took 150 catches in 42 Tests, having missed only one game between South Africa's return and his retirement. His eventual replacement, Mark Boucher, fretted at the limited scope he was allowed on this tour while his rivals were fully employed at home - but he soon took his chance, quite literally with both hands.
Australia did well to complete their ninth successive series win, given the continued absence of Jason Gillespie and the later injuries to Glenn McGrath and Paul Reiffel, which led to a raw new-ball attack taking the field at Adelaide. Warne was unable to bowl South Africa out on the final day at Melbourne, but he made up for it by destroying them at Sydney; and he had a promising new leg-spinning partner at Adelaide, where Stuart MacGill of New South Wales took five wickets on his debut. Australia's batting was again formidable: Taylor almost single-handedly averted a rout by carrying his bat at Adelaide; Mark Waugh made two important and stylish centuries; and Ponting contributed a stroke-studded 105 at Melbourne. Steve Waugh had a near miss, with 96 in his 99th Test, then disappointed his home fans by falling short again in his 100th, at Sydney. Ian Healy became the fourth Australian to join the 100-Test club, at Adelaide, joining Allan Border, David Boon and Steve Waugh.
Match reports for
ACB Chairman's XI v South Africans at Perth (Lilac Hill), Nov 25, 1997
Western Australia v South Africans at Perth, Nov 27-30, 1997
Prime Minister's XI v South Africans at Canberra, Dec 2, 1997
Tasmania v South Africans at Devonport, Dec 13-16, 1997
Australia A v South Africans at Brisbane, Dec 19-22, 1997
Bradman XI v South Africans at Bowral, Jan 13, 1998