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Australia's win in the Third Test gave them the series 2-0, but for once they were flattered by the scoreline, which owed much to a generous declaration at Sydney by Graeme Smith, forced upon him by the need to try to square the rubber at the end of a rain-affected match. South Africa had saved the First Test with a redoubtable batting performance, but lost the Second fair and square, and it was unfortunate that the weather prevented them from setting a sterner challenge in the final Test, which was decided by a truly great performance from Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, who marked his 100th Test match with not just one superb century, but two.
Expectations in South Africa before the fourth post-isolation tour of Australia were mixed - but almost certainly lower than for the previous three. Yet there was something very different about the approach and attitude of these tourists, a steely, defiant edge that came as much from a determination not to be overawed as from a belief that they would win. Smith started a war of words between the teams by claiming that his squad would not be affected by the "school-ground bullying" tactics of Australia and would stand up for themselves.
Smith was either fearless or foolish in adding that the hosts were "scared of losing on home soil", after Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath had made their usual bold statements nominating their personal bunnies. He also labelled the Australian middle order vulnerable and inexperienced - which, to be fair, it was. Brad Hodge, Mike Hussey and Andrew Symonds had a combined total of nine caps before the series began, and the South Africans believed quick wickets could fall if the top order of Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Ponting could be breached.
There was some evidence for this when Australia were bowled out for 258 at Perth on the first day of the series - and anything might have happened second time around had Hodge been caught for 13. But he was dropped, went on to 203 not out, made the Test safe, and shaped the rest of the series. Although Mickey Arthur, the South African coach, later described the view that dropped catches cost his team the rubber as "simplistic", the fact remains that they dropped 12 in total, and 620 runs were scored by batsmen after being given a life. That included four centuries by players dropped before they had reached 30.
Buoyed by a compelling contest at the WACA after years of one-sided home Tests, the Australian public's interest was drawn further to the series when Warne previewed the Boxing Day Test by describing Smith as "unimaginative and uninspiring" and a "typical" South African captain. Far from bowing down and biting his lip, which would have been a typical South African response, Smith gave journalists and headline writers the perfect Christmas present when he described Warne as a frustrated captain who tried to "take control of the team when the pressure is on", and who "put Ricky under a lot of pressure".
Warne was livid, while most South Africans could hardly believe that their young captain had allowed himself to be dragged into such a public no-win situation. Smith said after the series that it had been a calculated tactic to get under Warne's skin and deflect media attention away from the younger, more vulnerable members of his own squad. Both goals were achieved but, while neither man enjoyed his best series, the cost to South Africa may have been far greater: Warne's 14 wickets at 33 were more valuable than Smith's 155 runs at 25.83.
The bad words were not all from the participants. The South African management complained that racist remarks had been hurled at their players by the crowd on the third day at Perth, and increased security measures were introduced for the rest of that match and the next two Tests. This issue was to become far more substantial in the VB Series that would follow (to be reported in Wisden 2007).
For the home side there were as many questions as answers as the rebuilding era continued following the stunning Ashes defeat. Warne, 36, looked tired at times, but he was still majestic. However, Glenn McGrath, who turned 36 shortly after the series ended, struggled for pace and was often unthreatening. And, although Symonds enjoyed a memorable Melbourne Test, he was far from convincing as the nominated all-rounder at No. 6.
For South Africa, the tour was a watershed. By leading with his chin, Smith - still only 24 - showed a generation that they need not be intimidated or overawed by reputation. He showed, too, that you can expect a few opposition punches to land, and that they need not be knockouts. And he did something very un-South African indeed when he declared on the final day of the Sydney Test: he showed he was prepared to lose in order to try to win.
When it was all over, the final sight of Warne and Smith was of them sitting next to each other in the South African dressing-room at the SCG, sharing a bottle of wine and showing that all was fair in sport, if not life, after all. The rematch, in South Africa in March 2006, was eagerly awaited.
Match reports for
Tour match: Western Australia v South Africans at Perth, Dec 5-7, 2005
Tour match: Cricket Australia Chairman's XI v South Africans at Perth (Lilac Hill), Dec 9, 2005
Tour match: Western Australia XI v South Africans at Perth, Dec 11-13, 2005
Tour match: Queensland v South Africans at Brisbane, Jan 10, 2006
Tour match: Queensland Academy of Sport v South Africans at Brisbane, Jan 13, 2006