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Festive season comes alive as cricket's most abrasive rivalry resumes

They're like oil and water, they're the top two teams on the WTC table, and their meetings usually fill both ends of the newspaper. What more can you ask for?

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
In the home corner, in the off-white with yellow trim, with the leading two batters and top-ranked bowler in the long format, the World Test Championship table-toppers Australia, await their next bout.
In the away corner, with pristine white shirts and no team sponsor, with only one superstar in their squad whose shine has dimmed somewhat, are second-placed South Africa, tiptoeing into the ring.
The three-Test series has all the makings of a heavyweight fight, with the trash-talk to match. Words like "cowards" and "confrontation" have been used before any mention of cricket and there'll be as many sports fans' eyes scanning the front pages as the back ones from December 17. Meetings between these two teams, especially over the last decade, have usually been worth writing about on both ends of the newspaper.
This is their first meeting in Test cricket since the biggest of their scandals: Sandpapergate in 2018. In Australia, it was an event that shook the game to its core as characters were scrutinised and sanctioned and a culture shift propagated. South Africans have never really understood any of this. Why would they?
Prior to Sandpapergate, South African players had been caught tampering three times in as many years, Faf du Plessis twice (in 2013 and 2016, the latter as captain) and Vernon Philander in 2014, and were defended, not punished, by their board. In du Plessis' cases, CSA mounted the everybody-does-it-defence strongly; in Philander's, they threatened the broadcaster not to air footage of him gouging the ball with his thumbnail. It was shown anyway and Philander was fined 75% of his match fee but there was no contrition from South Africa. To see the Australians launch an investigation, to hear their prime minister speak on the matter and to discover the sentences handed out to the guilty was bemusing for South Africans. There are actual criminals in this country that get off lighter.
Now, four years and a global pandemic later, to find Australians still talking - no, handwringing - about Sandpapergate and how it will affect the mood ahead of this series has left South Africa, as Rassie van der Dussen put it, "amazed". It returned to the forefront in recent days with David Warner's shock statement about withdrawing his appeal against his leadership ban.
When pressed, Test captain Dean Elgar and interim coach Malibongwe Maketa have called Sandpapergate "unfortunate", but listen to the tone and the totality of their answers and what they're really saying is that it's just not such a big deal to South Africans. A bit like the debates over run-outs at the non-striker's end, it's a cultural difference.
That may seem surprising because, on the face of it, Australians and South Africans would appear to be quite similar. They're both from sunny, outdoorsy places with the best beaches the world has to offer, and they both regard the ceremony of cooking meat over open coals (the Aussies say barbecue, the Saffers say braai) as a social occasion. Their cricket teams are built on big, bad fast bowlers and a crew of steady batters, with the occasional sensational one. They are the teams that made fielding as much a discipline of the game as batting and bowling and put emphasis on fitness before others did. But, like oil and water, though South Africa and Australia's cricket teams have obvious similarities in structure and consistency, there's some things about them that just don't mix.
Australia have always had more bite and bark than South Africa. They are the inventors and masters of the sledge. Over the years, South Africa have tried to match them but until they started beating Australia, their words had little effect. And then in 2018, they had maximum effect, but we've already covered that ground. Similarly, South Africa have attempted to match Australia's body language, and again, in 2018 it went too far.
Kagiso Rabada's shoulder brush against Steven Smith in Gqeberha earned him sufficient demerit points to result in a ban, although he was able to get it overturned on appeal. Rabada has since acknowledged "some sort of feud between South Africa and Australia", but also prefers to view this series as an opportunity to "just focus on cricket."
In essence, that sums up South Africa. Despite Elgar all but baiting Australia to bring the fight to them, they actually prefer to keep the cricket on the field, often tunnel-visioning themselves as sportspeople only and it's as much as a strength as it is a shortcoming. Unlike Australia, whose captain Pat Cummins was vocal in his opposition to an energy company sponsoring the team because their business is in conflict with his climate consciousness, South Africa have yet to utter a word against their own power regulator, who have plunged the country into a record year of rolling blackouts. Cricket is only inconvenienced in a very minor way - with the occasional domestic day-night match being rescheduled as a day game - and cricketers are among the privileged classes who can secure a back-up system but it is precisely that kind of silence that can make the team appear disconnected from the people they play for. And that was never more evident than when the team tried to confront racism.
It was against Australia at the 2021 World Cup that South Africa's disjointed approach towards showing support for anti-racism was at its starkest. While the entire Australia team took a knee, only some South Africans did as others raised a fist and the rest stood to attention. Cricket South Africa's board was understood to be angered by this image and went on to issue a directive compelling the team to collectively take a knee for the rest of the summer. Initially, Quinton de Kock refused and sat out the next match but then apologised and joined his team-mates in making the gesture, only to retire from Test cricket less than three months later.
There's some irony in all this because Australia is a place where South African cricketers have reported being racially abused, and a place that became a popular immigration destination for mostly white South Africans as Apartheid was being dismantled. Australia are also a step ahead when it comes to recognising indigenous rights. Australia's players stand in a barefoot circle before all home matches, in acknowledgment of the indigenous land which they occupy. In South Africa, discussions around the recognition of the Khoi and San people (the First Nations' people of the geographic areas of the Western and Northern Cape) remain in their infancy.
All that may sound like too much intellectualising, but take it as a palate-cleanser before what we could see plenty of over the next few weeks: emotion. This series is going to be full of it. Recent history means it's unavoidable and the current context makes it inevitable. On paper, this is Test cricket's closest rivalry - No.1 plays No.2 in a championship race - and even though in reality, the Ashes and series involving India could be considered bigger for both sides, the context to this series means it will be the headline act of the summer.
One of the most anticipated match-ups will be between Elgar, who is also South Africa's most experienced player, and his opposite number Cummins, who is recovering from a quadriceps injury. Of South Africa's batters, only Elgar and his deputy Temba Bavuma have played Test cricket in Australia before. Many eyes will be on Bavuma, who endured a torrid T20 World Cup and has yet to add a three-figure score to the Test century he celebrated at Newlands in 2016 but has been South Africa's best long-format batter in the last two years. The only other batter to have played against Australia is Theunis de Bruyn, who featured in two of the four Tests in 2018, and is not guaranteed to start this series.
Contrastingly, the only batter of Australia's top four who has not played against South Africa is South African: Marnus Labuschagne, and he is also the top-ranked batter in the format at the moment. Labuschagne has played against South Africa in ODIs and gone from the lows of a first-ball duck to the highs of a first international 50-overs hundred. He knows what it feels like to play against people he could have been playing with, but that doesn't make it any less of a talking point. Elgar even expects some of it could be done in Labuschagne's mother tongue. "My last encounter with him was in a county game, and he spoke Afrikaans to me," Elgar said.
Labuschagne against Rabada and Anrich Nortje is the kind of story that could define the series. And there will be others. Smith and Warner's comeback against the team who witnessed their lowest moment nearly five years ago is a must-watch; the contest between Cameron Green and Marco Jansen is as much about height as allrounder ability; and whether the spinners on either side, Nathan Lyon and Keshav Maharaj, will have a say is an interesting subplot. Whatever you're doing this festive season, this series must be on your to-do list.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent