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Luke Alfred

The Australian aura we never thought would shatter

In the early 2000s, South African fans couldn't imagine a world where Australia didn't pummel their side. But they live in it today

Luke Alfred
Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer have plenty to be happy about during their mammoth 219-run opening stand, Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Sydney, 1st day, January 2, 2002

Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer brought your bowling attack down to its knees before the middle order delivered the knockout punch  •  Getty Images

In the Christmas break of 2001, my family and I holidayed in the Cederberg, a remote wilderness area about two and a bit hours' drive north of Cape Town. We rented a cottage at the foot of a gravel pass and spent long, lazy days with our three young sons splashing about in the nearby rock pools at the foot of our veranda.
The cottage had no television, radio reception was erratic and the nearest newspaper - invariably a day or two old - could only be found if you were prepared to slog 60 or 70 dusty kilometres back down the valley. At the time, the South Africans, captained by Shaun Pollock, were struggling their way across Australia. It was a nuisance - but, let's be honest, oddly convenient - not to have to follow them too closely.
One day in early January we decided to escape the inland heat. We bundled the children into their car seats and headed for the soft, misty seascapes of the Namaqualand coast. Out of the mountains, radio reception improved. We tuned in just in time to hear about Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer putting the brutal finishing touches to yet another Aussie victory.
This was in Sydney, the third Test of the series, and they duly won by ten wickets. They had taken the first Test, in Adelaide, by 246 runs and won by nine wickets to seal the series in Melbourne. Despite protestations to the contrary, the bravado of young men, South Africa didn't really come close to winning.
In our heart of hearts, we all knew they never would.
There was nothing easygoing about the way in which the Australian side of that vintage approached victory. They softened you up for three or four days, rattled about in your head, and then administered the knockout blow.
This was not a bad South African side. The Aussies, though, were enviably complete, with Damien Martyn batting at six (he scored a first-innings century in Sydney, after Hayden and Langer had started the match with an opening stand of 219) and Adam Gilchrist at seven. After that came four bowlers, including Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Here was the perfectly proportioned side.
For some reason, I remember that early January morning surprisingly clearly. Driving west through the desert scrubland, savouring the vast emptiness, the children fast asleep in the back on the car, I thought that Australian cricket was so preternaturally strong that this was how it would always be. The South Africans, with their pluck and threadbare optimism, would pretend to believe they could take Australia but they couldn't, not really.
When Western Australia scored 600 against the South Africans in a warm-up game and then the tourists lost by five wickets to an Australia A side at the beginning of the one-day series that followed the Tests, you suddenly understood something about the Aussie cricketing empire. Here was an imperium with reserve armies you didn't know they had. There was something frighteningly eternal to their strength and depth.
This is a myth, of course, we know that now. Things even out in the long cycles of decline and fall and the South Africans go into the first Test early next month with genuine rather than mock belief.
One of the reasons why such myths persisted for longer here than anywhere else is because South African cricket had been readmitted to the world game for only ten years when Pollock took the team to Australia in 2001-02. South African fans - and journalists - didn't have the luxury of long comparisons to fall back on, comparisons going back, say 20, or even 30 years. To us - to me - this frightening strength was unlikely to change because we never had the benefit of long, uninterrupted comparisons.
From the vantage point of the present, though, Australian cricket looks unaccountably vulnerable, mortal. Watching their ODI side being drubbed 5-0 here in South Africa a month ago, I was reminded of nothing so much as a South African side of yore, almost to the point of caricature. There was precious little variation in the right-arm-over bowling, and a curious diffidence hung about them. They had no big turning spinner and there was a certain iffiness about the batting. Things pretty much seem to have come full circle.
The liberation of knowing you have achieved something worthwhile in the same place before will give the South Africans strength ahead of the first Test. They have won in Perth on both previous trips to Australia and you do rather wonder about Cricket Australia's wisdom of putting them there again.
This is not to make any rash predictions about the series. What I do know is that somewhere along the line, thanks to South Africa and others, like England in 2005, the myth of Australian invincibility got rudely shattered. It has never been quite the same again.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg