After a denouement of shuddering brilliance in Cape Town, the 2013-14 Test season has been swallowed into the capacious guts of cricketing history. It will be remembered principally for Australia's startling revival, led by Mitchell Johnson, whose bowling was probably equal to anything in cricket's past, and unquestionably the best sustained performance by someone who had 30 wickets at 42 in his previous 11 Tests. It is amazing what a magic moustache can do. As the history of Australian pace bowling would testify.
Less than a year ago, Clarke's team was not merely on the carpet, but was wrapped up in the carpet and about to be furtively dumped in a disused canal. They were thrashed, confused and fractured in India, then thoroughly humiliated at Lord's. And yet, since November, they have played some of the greatest attacking cricket of recent decades, their achievement heightened by their individual and collective frailties over the last couple of years. Players who had failed or faded managed to demolish England into a quivering gloop, then crack South Africa with their high-risk, high-reward cricket. Who knows how long this brand-new-but-quite-old Australia will sustain this level, but their 2013-14 season is amongst the finest ever constructed by a Test match team.
Attention moves now to the delightful randomness of the World Twenty20. A two-and-a-half-week blitz is arguably the worst method of choosing a T20 champion, but unquestionably the most exciting. It is, therefore, half like the 50-over World Cup, and half very unlike the 50-over World Cup. More on this next week.
The bowel-curdlingly tense climax at Newlands was made possible not merely by the skill and resilience of the South African batsmen, or the persistent probery of the Australian bowlers on a featureless slab of a surface. It was also - perhaps primarily - a result of the far-sighted genius of the cricketing authorities in their efforts to stamp time-wasting, dawdling and general frittering into the fabric of international cricket. There were a total of 403 overs bowled in the Test, out of the 450 that should have been possible in five 90-over days. And yet, Australia clinched victory with just 4.3 overs remaining.
Day two was blighted by rain, with only 40 overs played. Extra half-hours were added to the start of each subsequent day to compensate for the lost time. Formerly, extra hours were added, but - I think because broadcasters were worried about commentators' parents giving them grief for overworking their little darlings - these were cut back to half-hours, thus helping to maximise the impact of rain on the outcome of the match.
Extra half-hours were also tagged on the end of each day, as they are to the end of almost every day of Test cricket, to compensate for the endemic slowness of the game, with its increasingly creative range of forced and unforced stoppages.
Nevertheless, on day three, only 89 out of 98 overs were bowled, and on day four, 93 of 98. Two overs had been jettisoned on day one. These overs lost to The Frittering are simply abandoned. Some of the overs lost to Mr Weather are clawed back, but not as many as would be, were the inclination present to play Tests to their prescribed length.
At one point in South Africa's first innings, Faf du Plessis scuttled off the field, and was "indisposed" for around five minutes, before returning.
It did not take a rocket scientist to work out where he had been, or what he had been doing there. I am not a rocket scientist. And I have the lack of certificates to prove it. Obviously, du Plessis was concluding a highly tense eBay auction for a vintage 19th-century porcelain figurine of Florence Nightingale. Or feeding fruit jellies to his lucky iguana in the dressing room. Or watching the first few minutes of a new boxed set of his favourite TV show, Peppa Pig Grows Up - The Bacon-Avenging Years. A rocket scientist might, however, have suggested du Plessis was responding to a call of nature, as astronauts in rockets so often do. Perhaps, on this occasion, I will bow to the superior scientific insight of the rocket scientist.
Faf returned, and the game resumed. At the end of the day, seven overs had been lost. At least one of them, possibly two, was attributable to Faf's unscheduled "quality me-time". If South Africa had clung on to the precipice with one wicket left, it might have proved to be one of the most influential "comfort breaks" in sporting history. And in this era of scientific hyperanalysis, it would soon have become a default tactic. A batsman in a team staring down the barrel of a nasty second-innings rearguard will inevitably clutch his tummy, apologise unconvincingly to the umpire, and disappear off into the recesses of the pavilion with a tricky-looking cryptic crossword tucked under his arm.
Previously, I had often been irritated by the needlessly dilatory pace of the game and the consequent shortening of the match, facilitated by official indifference, technological creep, somnolent umpiring and a general ambivalence about paying spectators. However, without the decisions made by administrators to allow and encourage the needless loss of overs from Test matches, the Newlands finale would not have happened. Australia would probably have wrapped victory up with well over an hour to spare. Evidently, playing conditions are not a time-waster's charter, as cynics might suggest. They are visionary generators of sporting drama.
* Ryan Harris, as highlighted in last week's blog, was on course to become the first pace bowler to take 100 Test wickets having made his debut over the age of 30. He duly did so, and earned an unarguable place in the All-Time Greatest Test Cricketers Who Were Not Selected Until Their 4th Decade on Earth XI.
(A couple of qualifying criteria: players whose debuts were delayed by one or other World War are disqualified [commiserations to any disappointed Vijay Hazare and Ernie Toshack fans out there]; as are those who were unable to play Test cricket until their 30s due to the inconvenience of their country not yet being a Test nation [such as WG Grace and David Houghton], or, in the case of post-reintegration South Africans, due to their government's naughty politics. This is a team for players who could have been selected before turning 30, but were not.)
1. Chris Rogers (Australia, debut aged 30 in 2007-08): 14 Tests, 1030 runs, average 38.1
Not only did Rogers make a belated debut shortly after his 30th birthday, but he then immediately took a five-year non-voluntary sabbatical. He returned for his second Test - effectively, a re-debut - last English summer, aged 35, since when he has scored four hundreds and more than a thousand runs against two of the leading attacks in the world game.
Obviously, du Plessis was concluding a highly tense eBay auction for a vintage 19th-century porcelain figurine of Florence Nightingale. Or feeding fruit jellies to his lucky iguana in the dressing room. Or watching the first few minutes of a new boxed set of his favourite TV show, Peppa Pig Grows Up - The Bacon-Avenging Years
2. John Holt (West Indies, debut aged 30 in 1953-54): 17 Tests, 1066 runs, average 36.7
Scored heavily against a potent England line-up after finally breaking into the West Indies XI. Holt was skilful and elegant - so skilful and elegant that there was a near-riot when he was triggered for 94 on his Test debut.
3. David Steele (England, debut aged 33 in 1975): 8 Tests, 673 runs, average 42.0
The silver-haired poster boy of late debuts. Steele's Test career was brief but impressive, and played entirely against the fire-breathing pre-helmet pace barrages that England faced in the mid-1970s. Selected for this team not merely for his 365 runs in three Tests against Lillee, Thomson and Walker (with a lowest score of 39 in six innings) in 1975, nor solely for his hundred against the 1976 West Indians, but also for looking like he was a good ten-to-15 years older than he was. Which was already very old for a Test debutant.
4. Mike Hussey (Australia, debut aged 30 in 2005-06): 79 Tests, 6235 runs, average 51.5
By recklessly giving birth to him in 1975, Hussey's parents condemned him to years of patient Testlessness, as Australia's golden generation of batting megaliths relentlessly pounded out the hundreds. When the Baggy Greens finally unleashed Mr Cricket, he went on a number-bending two-year run-spree - eight hundreds and an average of 84 in his first 20 Tests. His form dipped, then recovered, and he proved himself one of the most complete Test batsmen of the modern era.
5. Mike Brearley (England, captain, debut aged 34 in 1976): 39 Tests, 1442 runs, average 22.8
Selected not for his runs, which he plinked in less than abacus-melting quantities, but for his impact on the game through his legendary powers of leadership. Rumour has it that in a previous life he once captained a team of fat, injured zebras to victory over a Coliseum full of extremely peckish lions. Brearley graduated to the England team 15 years after his maiden first-class appearance, but still managed to be perhaps the only 34-year-old debutant to constitute something of a "youth policy" - he was the youngest member of England's top four against West Indies, batting alongside John Edrich (aged nearly 39), Steele (34¾) and Brian Close (never you mind), as England sought to fight fire with age. Without a great deal of success. Five years later, Brearley masterminded England's 1981 Ashes miracle. Would he have managed it without Botham? Definitely not. But would Botham have managed it without Brearley? Almost definitely not.
6. Basil d'Oliveira (England, debut aged 34 in 1966): 44 Tests, 2484 runs, average 40.0; 47 wickets, average 39.5
An outstanding cricketer denied the chance to represent the land of his birth, he played first-class cricket for the first time when already well into his 30s, and carved himself a long, successful and influential England career despite making his Test debut when significantly older than Graeme Smith is today.
7. Brad Haddin (Australia, wicketkeeper, debut aged 30 in 2008): 57 Tests, 3033 runs, average 35.2, 228 catches, five stumpings
One of several leading Australian glovemen who have entered the Test arena with their twenties already both (a) done and (b) dusted, Haddin proved himself a high-class cricketer after his Gilchrist-delayed debut, and touched greatness in this winter's Ashes. Edges out lesser batsmen, such as Wally Grout and Don Tallon, as well as a range of spectacularly named thirtysomething debutant stumpers from cricket's bygone days, including
Barlow Carkeek, Arthur Dolphin and Mordecai Sherwin.
8. Ryan Harris (Australia, debut aged 30 in 2009-10): 24 Tests, 103 wickets, average 22.5
Thank you very much for not playing at Trent Bridge. And for playing in Cape Town. Yours sincerely, English cricket.
9. Saeed Ajmal (Pakistan, debut aged 31 in 2009): 33 Tests, 169 wickets, average 27.4
Pakistan had one debutant over the age of 30 in 54 years, between 1955 and 2009 (the one-Test 32-year-old Shakeel Ahmed, against Australia, in 1997-98). Since then, seven thirtysomethings have played their first Test for Pakistan, beginning with Ajmal and Abdur Rauf (aged 30) in the Galle Test against Sri Lanka in 2009. The former spiritual home of the teenage prodigy now hoards late-flowering cricketers, led by the Faisalabad Befuddler. He did not so much tie England's batsmen in knots in Pakistan's 2012 whitewash in the UAE, as turn them into a hammock and settle them down in them for a relaxing afternoon kip.
10. Clarrie Grimmett (Australia, debut aged 33 in 1924-25): 37 Tests, 216 wickets, average 24.2
The greatest Test wicket-taker of the inter-war years, by a massive margin. By the age at which Grimmett first played for Australia, Shane Warne had already bagged over 400 Test wickets. Even more impressively, Grimmett had a dog that could count to six. Apparently. He was so good (Grimmett, not the dog) (who was also, evidently, a bit special) (and helped Grimmett in training) (the canine Terry Jenner) (good doggie) that, when he was dropped for the 1936-37 Ashes, most considered he had been discarded by Australia at far too young an age. He was 44.
11. Stuart Clark (Australia, debut aged 30 in 2005-06): 24 Tests, 94 wickets, average 23.8
Harris prototype. But taller, and different. Also instrumental in an Ashes whitewash, but, unlike Harris, never bowled out two batsmen in three balls to win a Test with minutes to spare whilst hobbling around on a knee made of poppadoms.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer