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A compelling rivalry: South Africa's 414-chase to Australia's last-hour hurrah

A flashback to some of the best moments between Australia and South Africa in the last eight years

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
It might not quite be the Ashes or India-Pakistan, but a series between Australia and South Africa has its own appeal. The two sides are competitive, intense, evenly matched, and bring the best and worst out of each other.
Over the last eight years, Australia-South Africa contests have been especially epic: both teams have overcome the other's home advantage, legendary captains have retired, and records have been made and broken.
Here's a quick recap.
2008: South Africa successfully chased 414 in Perth and won again in Melbourne - their first series victory in Australia.
2011: Australia were bowled out for 47 in Cape Town, before sneaking to a two-wicket win in Johannesburg to draw the two-Test series.
2012: A stonewalling in Adelaide that has become the stuff of legend.
On the day, it was a show of defiance. In the context of the series, it shifted the momentum. For the players involved, it was defining. It was where Faf du Plessis showed the character that led to him becoming a stand-in captain. It was where Peter Siddle learned to lead an attack. It was where Nathan Lyon played his first real Test.
"I realised I was playing Test match cricket and teams don't just roll over," Lyon told ESPNcricinfo.
Far from it. Usman Khawaja, who was not playing in that Adelaide Test, admitted what a lot of people would have been thinking. "I was expecting Australia to win."
South Africa finished day four on 77 for 4 in their chase of 430. Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla were out. Jacques Kallis was injured. Du Plessis was on debut. Even though Australia also had a casualty in James Pattinson, they thought themselves halfway home.
"When you've got debutants coming in, you know they might perform well because the reason they are getting an opportunity is because they are skillful," Siddle said. "You think he might bat for a little while but then you might get him out. He's nervous, it's his first test, it won't last."
But it did. And partly because of who du Plessis had at the other end. His childhood friend, AB de Villiers; the inventor of some of the most ingenious strokes in the modern game was not interested in anything other than the block. De Villiers scored 33 off 220 balls at a strike rate of 15 - a run every seven balls he faced - and did not breach the boundary once. It was an incredible show of restraint from a player who is known for scoring quickly.
When Lyon called their partnership "unbelievable," he was not saying so in the way the word is casually used. He really meant it.
Australia "tried everything under the sun," as Siddle remembers it. Michael Clarke bowled first change and went on to deliver 18 overs. Du Plessis was given out twice off him, both times lbw, both times overturned on review.
Rob Quiney bowled, Ricky Ponting bowled, David Warner bowled. Nathan Lyon bowled more than anyone else, but in the absence of Pattinson, the responsibility fell chiefly on Siddle. He bore it bravely, even when it became difficult and even as he knew he was probably bowling himself out of contention for the final game.
"The first thing I learned was that I hope none of your fast bowling buddies go down injured again," Siddle joked. "But personally, the biggest thing is putting yourself through that and knowing you can do it. Even though it cost me in the end. I didn't end up playing in Perth."
Four years and a few injuries later, Siddle can see beyond the exhaustion of that day and reflects fondly on what the match did for Test cricket. "People always talk about Test cricket dying and all those types of things, but that was exciting. They are the challenges you love about Test cricket. You don't get to see stuff like that in other forms of the game.
"That's the great thing about Test cricket. The different challenges, the tactics, how it goes up and down from one side to the other. You don't mind if teams have to play defensively sometimes, that's also what Test cricket is about. It's not about trying to win every match. I am a traditionalist. I have always loved the longer form."
Like Siddle, Lyon also appreciates the experience, although he certainty does not want to relive it.
"It helped me grow as a person and it helped our bowling group grow as well," he said. "I have much better memories of 2014 though."
2014: That year, Australia traveled to South Africa with revenge on the agenda. Mitchell Johnson was, in Khawaja's words, "terrorising everyone in world cricket at the time."
South Africa had stayed No.1 all through that period, information that didn't mean much to Johnson. He tore through them at SuperSport Park, a venue where South Africa have been more successful at than any other, before Steyn returned the favour in Port Elizabeth.
The series went down to a decider in Cape Town, where Smith announced his retirement mid-match and South Africa threatened another blockathon to save the game.
Ryan Harris was the man with ball in hand then, and in the final hour on the final day, he removed a stubborn Morne Morkel to maintain Australia's record of never losing a Test series in South Africa post-readmission. South Africa suffered their first defeat since being crowned No. 1.
"In a way it's weird. You don't usually lose on your home soil, and then go over there and win," Siddle said.
But that's exactly how South Africa and Australia have played it for the last eight years. South Africa have won in Australia, Australia have won in South Africa, and all the meetings have been intriguing.
At a time when world cricket needs introspection over the questions of scheduling, possible expansion, and the place of T20 leagues, to have a rivalry this rich is a reminder of how unique international, long-form cricket is. If the 2016 edition of Australia versus South Africa is anything like the previous ones, there's nothing else you'd want to be watching. Nathan Lyon agrees.
"To have two good teams going at it is exceptional for world cricket and it shows how good Test match cricket is."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent