Series Review

South Africa v Australia, 2005-06

Test matches (3): South Africa 0, Australia 3
One-day internationals (5): South Africa 3, Australia 2
Twenty20 international (1): South Africa 1, Australia 0

There was a strong belief, certainly amongst South Africans, that the 2-0 scoreline in the preceding series in Australia had flattered the world champions. A hard-fought draw at Perth had earned South Africa their spurs. But after they lost at Melbourne, rain forced Graeme Smith into making a bold - some thought reckless - declaration on the final day at Sydney. Shane Warne, however, had a different version of events: "They must be the worst performing team to come out of South Africa," he asserted after a string of verbal run-ins with Smith. It simply served to heighten anticipation for the return series in South Africa.

Two factors enhanced South African convictions that revenge would be theirs. The first was Glenn McGrath's decision to skip the tour to be with his wife Jane, recently diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer. The second, bizarrely, was that Smith's team had dropped a dozen catches in the Perth and Melbourne Tests, lapses that had perhaps cost 600 runs. Instead of seeing this as a problem, Smith and coach Mickey Arthur - plus most supporters - treated it as evidence that Ricky Ponting and his team were beatable. They seemed to take for granted that, in front of home crowds, catches would be held: they also assumed that as many chances would be offered.

As things transpired, McGrath's boots were ably filled by the man of the series, Stuart Clark, who at 30 years and 169 days became the oldest fast bowler to make his debut for Australia since Sam Gannon in 1977-78. He took 20 wickets at under 16 each. As for the catching, South Africa did drop fewer - but still too many. And fewer were offered.

Ponting and Smith agreed the Australians had "played the big points better", though the real reason - probably too painful for Smith and his team to accept - was that South Africa lacked match-winners. Or, more accurately, their match-winning players against other nations failed to deliver against Australia. Moments of individual brilliance were sporadic, good enough even to shade the one-day games, but not a Test match. Let alone a Test series.

Nothing illustrated this better than Ponting's own performance. If the six Tests in the two countries were regarded as a single series, his aggregate of 863 runs would have been the third-highest in history, behind Don Bradman and Wally Hammond. But while Bradman and Hammond's runs were underpinned by at least one huge score, Ponting accumulated five centuries and three more fifties. His relentlessness wore down the opposition so much that they expected him to score runs from the moment he arrived at the crease. And when he did offer a chance, it was dropped.

Warne, naturally, rose to the on-field challenges, though compared to previous tours he seemed content to step back and let the seamers enjoy the greener pitches prepared in the hope of nullifying his threat. But as always he couldn't keep his mouth shut, and continually goaded Smith for his "unimaginative" leadership. It was too much for Smith, who was left gasping at a press conference: "Do you guys really take him seriously? I can't believe you take him seriously..."

Much of the blame for South Africa's failure was laid, understandably, at the (rather static) feet of the top-order batsmen. Even the classy Jacques Kallis, South Africa's only centurion, averaged just 37, while the two other names, Smith and Herschelle Gibbs, managed a meagre 18 each. Equally disappointing was the South African bowling. The sole exception was Makhaya Ntini, the hardest-working member of the attack, whose 19 wickets cost 22 - workhorse and strike bowler combined. That role used to be Pollock's, but a return of four wickets at 66 suggested his career, at least as a strike bowler, was fading fast.

South African dreamers might point to moments in each Test when the competition was fierce, the match could have swung either way and there seemed little to choose between the teams. Apparently. But those moments always came early in the Test - and even the most outclassed boxer can sometimes last a few rounds before the knockout blow.

The highlight of the tour from the home viewpoint was a gem of a oneday series that perfectly whetted the appetite for the Tests. The Australians were missing Ponting and Symonds for the first two games - and were thrashed. They came back strongly to win the next two in exciting style - the fourth by a single wicket - and set up the decider at the Wanderers.

What a decider! This one freakish game contained 872 runs, almost enough for a whole series, and entertainment by the wagonload. It too was won with the last pair at the crease - the first time a bilateral series had contained successive one-wicket wins, and just the third that a series was decided by the last wicket in the last over of the last match. South Africa, amazingly, came out on top. It might have given them a springboard for the Tests, but Australia, for the umpteenth time, proved the most resilient force in world cricket.

Match reports for

Only T20I: South Africa v Australia at Johannesburg, Feb 24, 2006
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1st ODI: South Africa v Australia at Centurion, Feb 26, 2006
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2nd ODI: South Africa v Australia at Cape Town, Mar 3, 2006
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3rd ODI: South Africa v Australia at Port Elizabeth, Mar 5, 2006
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4th ODI: South Africa v Australia at Durban, Mar 10, 2006
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5th ODI: South Africa v Australia at Johannesburg, Mar 12, 2006
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1st Test: South Africa v Australia at Cape Town, Mar 16-18, 2006
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2nd Test: South Africa v Australia at Durban, Mar 24-28, 2006
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3rd Test: South Africa v Australia at Johannesburg, Mar 31-Apr 4, 2006
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© John Wisden & Co.