Following the promise of their 1993-94 tour to Australia, South Africa found the going a lot tougher Down Under thereafter. Jacques Kallis' century at the MCG in a fighting draw was the highlight of the 1997-98 trip, but they lost the series 1-0.
That defeat was only a taster, though. A year into the new millennium, the two teams contested important home-and-away series in a contest where the sides were dubbed "Kings of Cricket" by the marketers. But they turned out to be less clashes between kings than between men and boys. Australia won 3-0 at home in a series dominated by headlines about South African quotas and 2-1 in the return trip, to establish themselves as the emperors of the game.
When they set out for Australia in December 2001, South Africa had been confident of their chances. Having emerged from the Hansie Cronje saga to beat Australia in a one-day series at home, they felt they had the firepower to derail the best side in the world. "We left thinking that we were two very evenly matched teams," Boeta Dippenaar said. "And only after we got there did we realise how much more Australia had going for them at that stage.
"There were two crucial areas we lacked in. One was that we did not have a settled No. 3. It was a bit of a toss-up between myself and Jacques Rudolph. And they had Shane Warne. He played an enormous part. We had Claude Henderson, and he is a good, honest cricketer but he could not compare."
Henderson, a left-arm spinner, was relatively new in the South African side at the time. He had taken 11 wickets in two Tests in Zimbabwe, but Australia was his first time overseas. He knew his opposite number outweighed him.
"It was a very special moment for me because I was a very new member of the squad, and I was going to play against the best side the world had ever seen," Henderson said. "I was just the underdog and I didn't expect it to be any other way. For me, it was just great to be on the field with him. He was a solider on the field, but after hours, he was the best guy to have a chat with. Not many cricketers have time for the opposition, but he would always chat to us."
That the South Africans could even handle small talk with the players who were dominating them just about every day they spent on the field was surprising. They were outplayed at every step, although it hadn't looked that way on the first day of series.
The decision to leave Jacques Rudolph out for Justin Ontong made headlines for its political undertone. South Africa's board president, Percy Sonn, had intervened to change the selection so it met the requirements of the new South Africa. Many felt it was an unfair system that didn't reward merit, but Sonn believed it was the only way to right the wrongs of apartheid. On the ground, the way the selection had been handled affected the players badly, especially Dippenaar.
"Jacques Rudolph had played the warm-up game and the last match against India at Centurion -which ended up being the unofficial Test - in my position. So I didn't think I would play in Adelaide," Dippenaar said. "I was last on the list for nets and I knew my chances were slim. But the night before, I was told I would be playing. I was very surprised because I hadn't even batted against the Test bowlers."
Dippenaar was not needed immediately, though, since South Africa fielded first. Australia ended the day on 272 for 6. Henderson had taken three wickets. "I clearly remember when Shaun Pollock caught Justin Langer at slip," Henderson said.
The next morning, though, things just didn't go South Africa's way. Damien Martyn put on 84 with Warne and 77 with Brett Lee. Lee's time at the crease was particularly problematic for Henderson, who missed out on a five-wicket haul. "When I went into the change room I saw that the last foreign bowler to take a five-for in Adelaide was Curtly Ambrose, and I thought it would wonderful to be the next one," Henderson said. "I actually almost got it because Brett Lee edged to Mark Boucher but umpire Venkat [S Venkataraghavan] did not give it out."
Lee and Henderson battled later in the match again, when Henderson came out as the nightwatchman after Dippenaar, not being in the right frame of mind after his addition to the line-up in the 11th hour, was dismissed for 4. "I am the kind of person who takes a while to get my head around things and I hadn't got my head around it yet," Dippenaar said.
Henderson eyed the square boundary when he came in because he "thought it was quite a short boundary". But when he tried to pull Lee, he was hit on the neck. He managed to stay on and score 30 but South Africa's batting was woeful throughout the match. Warne took eight and Australia won by 246 runs.
Henderson took comfort in the fact that he picked up seven wickets. "It was one of those experiences I will never forget because it was a good match for me. Actually, the whole tour was something I remember with a lot of pride and fondness."
Dippenaar also enjoyed the tour, even though things got worse for South Africa in Melbourne. They were beaten by nine wickets, with only Kallis' 99 a highlight. "I walked out to 70,000 people at the MCG and I thought to myself, 'It just doesn't get better than this'," Dippenaar said.
It didn't, because the tour ended with a third big defeat, at the SCG. South Africa could set Australia only 53 and lost by ten wickets. But despite the margin of defeat, the visitors batted their best in Sydney. In the second innings, following on, they put on 452 - their highest total of the series. Dippenaar said that was because they had finally been shaken by how badly they were doing. Personally, he felt better prepared for the challenge and made his highest score on the tour, 74, sharing a 149-run stand with Gary Kirsten.
"Allan Donald spoke to us before that about how much it hurts to lose and how we should turn things around. For the first time on that trip, I felt comfortable at that level and thought I could handle myself against the best. It was one of those times when I came close to settling into the team, but even after that, I always felt like I was two failures away from being left out." He was not the only one who felt that way. Ontong and Rudolph also suffered because of the unsettled feeling in the team.
Above all, South Africa were more embarrassed than they were disappointed. Dippenaar thought one of the reasons they lost so badly was because of flaws in their strategy. "We tried to play Australia using Australian methods and beat them at their own game. We set attacking fields with three or four slips and that did not work. If you look at how England won the Ashes in 2005, they didn't do that. They frustrated the Australians. They did things like make sure that when the ball went to point, it was one and not four. At that time, you couldn't beat Australia at their own game. You had to out-think them."
Dippenaar didn't blame his captain for the methods, but said having Shaun Pollock as their leader did not help. "It's very hard to single out Polly, because he was somebody who was good at what he did. Those types of people don't necessarily make the best captains. We realised the difference between the two sides and it actually brought us together for the one-day series, which we won."
The sizeable gulf between the teams was reflected in the stats. Warne was the highest wicket-taker, with 17 wickets, Glenn McGrath took 14, and Lee nine. Pollock was next, with eight. Matthew Hayden scored three centuries, and Langer and Martyn two each. Kirsten was the only South African to get a hundred.
Neither Dippenaar nor Henderson expects a contest so one-sided this time round. Both said it will be a tussle and that and South Africa could walk away as winners. "It's Australia's turn to see if they can beat the world's best," Henderson said. Dippenaar didn't think the No. 1 ranking was as secure as some think. "The teams are a lot closer than we give them give credit for. I think Australia are not that far off. But South Africa have a more balanced team. It will be a battle of the top sixes."