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Luke Alfred

Remembering 2008

As Mickey Arthur takes charge of Pakistan, he could do worse than look back at successful tours of England and Australia eight years ago, when he coached South Africa

Luke Alfred
Mickey Arthur and Graeme Smith oversaw possibly the finest period in South African Test cricket since  readmission  •  Getty Images

Mickey Arthur and Graeme Smith oversaw possibly the finest period in South African Test cricket since readmission  •  Getty Images

We all like to think we understand a coach's alchemy - perhaps because it makes us seem more insightful than we really are. Matters are often more complicated, a case in point being Mickey Arthur, the recently appointed coach of Pakistan.
Here in South Africa, Arthur had a reputation for being easy-going, warmly trusting to a fault. In the Australian context, however, he foolishly insisted on grown men doing homework - though that was a symptom of his struggles rather than their cause. The very idea of Arthur giving Morne Morkel homework ("The ANC is an example of African liberation movement perverted - discuss.") is patently ridiculous, so why entertain it elsewhere?
Arthur's reputation was established on two tours, to England in 2008 and Australia in 2008-09. At Lord's in the opening Test on the first of those two tours, South Africa could only muster 247 in response to England's 593 batting first (Ian Bell 199, Kevin Pietersen 152), creating the quicksand of a follow-on.
Yet the visitors were increasingly sure-footed. The pitch played easier and easier, and England only managed three wickets in 167 joyless overs. Graeme Smith (107), Hashim Amla (104 not out) and Neil McKenzie (138) scored watchful tons in a drawn Test. The South Africans could breathe again.
Wins at Headingley (hundreds for AB de Villiers and Ashwell Prince; Dale Steyn and Morkel sharing 14 wickets) and Edgbaston (Smith 154 not out) followed, and suddenly the series was in the bag, no one bothering much with the shambles of Lord's. South Africa conceded 48 extras in England's only innings in the first Test; Makhaya Ntini, the hero of Lord's in 2003, was a shadow of his former self in bowling 29 expensive, wicketless overs and it all looked just slightly undercooked.
Still, twitchy beginnings were quickly rectified. The South Africans played some good, hard cricket in Leeds and Birmingham before losing the final Test at The Oval. Job done.
Five months later the South Africans were in Western Australia, preparing for the first Test in Perth. Arthur and Smith knew that there was to be no repeat of Lord's. Duncan Fletcher was hauled in as a batting consultant; Jeremy Snape gave priceless psychological support. As the days passed, the excitement became tactile.
Perth is an odd city, strangely cheerful in its isolation. Here was cricket on the edge of the world. Nothing else seemed to matter. Expectation rose with the dawn.
You could see how up for it the South Africans were by looking into their eyes. Steyn was wired. Making his debut as a replacement for Prince, JP Duminy couldn't keep still. Arthur was bouncy with animation. Only Smith seemed unaffected, finding peace, counselling calm.
On the eve of the Test, Australia's Stuart Clark was ruled out with an elbow injury. As he gave the news at an impromptu press conference, I could see him choke back the tears, stunned at how unfair it all was. As we scribbled in our notebooks, we noticed that he could hardly talk. Emotion was so close to the surface that you could reach out and touch it.
Australia staggered to 15 for 3 on the first morning - two wickets to Ntini - before Simon Katich and Michael Clarke hunkered down. The two (Katich 83, Clarke 62) went within runs of each other but Andrew Symonds (57) and Brad Haddin (46) made a carefree nuisance of themselves down the order before the Aussies were all out for 375.
McKenzie went early but Smith (48), Amla (47), Jacques Kallis and de Villiers (63 each) took the innings past lunch on the second day. With the ball wearing, Mitchell Johnson ripped the life out of the innings before the close. He took five wickets for four runs in 26 balls; the South Africans limped to 281 as he finished with 8 for 61. At the press conference the South Africans looked shell-shocked. De Villiers' saucer-shaped eyes said it all. Smith tried to wrestle the horror into shape. He spoke of "undercut" on the Johnson deliveries - it sounded like a proud man trying to conjure a shred of honour from disaster.
The Australians might have been expected to make the most of their momentum on the third day but instead they struggled to 88 for 4. With Paul Harris bowling well into the wind, the responsibility for a decent total fell to Haddin. He plundered 94 gallingly careless runs as the Australians ended on 319, meaning the South Africans needed well over 400 to win batting last.
Few of us thought they had much of a chance. They looked like a team on the verge of a nervous breakdown after being blitzed by Johnson, and although they gave nothing away in the Australian second innings, the total was surely a bridge too far. Our view didn't change when they finished day four on 227 for 3, Smith having gone for a fighting century. Kallis and de Villiers batted calmly through the fifth morning, until Johnson nipped out Kallis for 57. A tremor of fear must have rippled through the dressing room.
In the end it didn't matter, as South Africa breezed over the line for a six-wicket win. Duminy hit the winning runs to score his maiden Test half-century, and Smith, Arthur and their team flew to Melbourne to take the series, their reputations beginning to soar.
In over 25 years of post-readmission cricket for South Africa, there couldn't have been a sweeter victory. It is one Arthur might longingly recall in the tough English months to come with the Pakistan side.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg