Over the last 20 years South Africa and Australia have fought fiercely for supremacy in Test cricket. Repeatedly the Proteas challenged strongly, only to falter with success in sight. Often they have played mighty cricket, tough and tenacious, but it appeared that their belief did not penetrate their inner bowels. At times it seems that locals regard Australian sporting teams with the same mixture of raw emotions detected in England sides preparing to play Germany. The worry is palpable, and it is also self-fulfilling. Locals feared the worst from the moment the Boks were pitted against the Wallabies in the rugby World Cup quarter-final, and so it came to pass.
South Africa have not been held back because they falter under pressure. They have fallen short in World Cups and elsewhere because they cannot handle Australians, a bunch of pests unwilling to give ground. For a decade or so, South Africa appeared frequently on the verge of downing the Aussies, only to drop a careless catch or suffer a numbing run-out. Had those chances been taken, the 1999 World Cup would not have been lost, and then an entirely different story might have been told.
Yet the misses told of a team no longer at ease with itself, and slightly jealous of opponents living in a simpler world. Not until that outlook changed could the deed finally be done. Till then valiant victories, not least in burning Sydney
, offered heroic consolation, tempered by no less memorable and contentious setbacks in Port Elizabeth
Hereabouts South Africa's strength lay in their resolution, pace bowling and depth of batting. All concealed a deficiency. Resolution is not quite the same as conviction, the outlook observed in the opposing camp. The vigour of the fast bowling created dependency on it, and strategic inflexibility. The batting list was long but only Jacques Kallis, among the most underestimated of champion cricketers, has the stamp of authority.
Probably expectations were too high. Seen in another light, South Africa have performed exceptionally well. It is no small thing to be absent from international cricket for decades and to return strong enough immediately to challenge for the top positions, and to be disappointed when they are not attained. Certainly South Africa was able to lure touring teams to its shores in the apartheid years - though makeshift sides, mostly lacking the passion of a national outfit. Doubtless that helped to kindle interest in the game. But these contests did not signify as Test matches and ODIs signify; South Africa's leading players were not stretched to the utmost.
Nor did the game develop in those lost years. Instead South Africa was held together by traditional schools, long its main source of talent (and now England's), and by an immensely gifted group of players, including various Pollocks, Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow, Mike Procter, Vincent van der Bijl and Clive Rice. Few nations have produced such a rich array of cricketers in a single generation. In that regard only West Indies of the 1970s and 1980s surpass them.
Considering the excellence of these players, it might easily be supposed that local cricket was going from strength to strength, that the brilliance was sustainable. That is by no means clear. It might have been a purple patch. Previously South Africa had only sporadically been competitive, and the reason was simple. As in Sri Lanka, the playing base was small and restricted. Nor, till apartheid ended, was it possible for it to grow. Until that day dawned, South Africa relied on the ability of 20 or 30 strong schools to keep churning out impressive white cricketers.
When liberty arrived in that great nation, South Africa resumed playing international cricket. At first nothing much changed because little beyond window-dressing had been invested in the new lines of production, namely the Indian communities of Kwa-Zulu Natal, the coloured communities in the Eastern Cape, and the black communities everywhere. Even now the progress has been slow. If anything, fewer black players appear in school teams in 2011 than they did in 1991. Makhaya Ntini was not so much the product of a well-oiled machine as the harbinger of a false dawn.
Accordingly South Africa's performance since returning deserves high praise not censure, with a warning attached that it is tenuous, that much depends on the ability to produce black players, a group held back by all sorts of factors, not least diet, family backing and economic reality. Facilities are important but unless socio-economic factors are taken into account South Africa will remain frustratingly light-skinned.
Few nations have produced such a rich array of cricketers in a single generation as South Africa did. In that regard only West Indies of the 1970s and 1980s surpass them
Now South Africa's second generation of players is setting about the task of building a side strong enough to challenge the world. They might succeed. If the first generation emerged from the old South Africa, their successors are unmistakably from the new country. That the one-day side is led by an Afrikaner and an Indian tells the tale.
No less significantly, the team reflects the new approach, with two spinners included in the squad for the Tests. Moreover Imran Tahir is likely to play, an attacking and flamboyant wrist-spinner adept at mopping up tails. Previously South Africa had seemed to regard spin as decadence, likely to appeal to soft Westerners and crafty Easterners but not to be taken seriously as a means of pressing in rugged locations such as Africa. Now the hosts have been hiding their tweaker from the visitors, confident that they will need time to unravel his subtleties.
Nor have the selectors been afraid to replace Alviro Petersen
, a coloured opener with a sound recent record, with Jacques Rudolph, an Afrikaner from the same school as AB de Villiers. Rudolph has been scoring a stack of runs in domestic cricket and deserves his opportunity. He might have played against the Aussies in Sydney a decade ago
but the series had already been lost and Percy Sonn decreed that Justin Ontong ought to be given an opportunity. Sonn was much maligned but he had a warmth missing in his predecessors and replacements, including Ray Mali and Norman Arendse, men with little minds.
Rudolph reappears as a more mature and skilful batsman, joining a side that need not dwell upon the past but rather ought to focus on charting the path forwards. His selection is important because it gives hope to players performing well in domestic cricket, and it also shows a determination to choose the side strictly on merit, an approach that will reassure the team that hereafter it will not go into battle with one arm tied behind its back. South Africa has stopped using its top team as a tool. It needs to concentrate on the state of the game at the grassroots. Gestures serve little purpose; investment is required, in pitches, equipment, scholarships, coaches and so forth.
It ought to be an entertaining and unpredictable series. On paper South Africa have the upper hand because their bowling is more penetrating and varied. Moreover, several of the local players are at the peak of their careers, including the new-ball pair and de Villiers and Hashim Amla. Hardly any of the Australians are in the same position; most of them are coming or going.
But Graeme Smith has been out of sorts, de Villiers has been injured, and the team has only just returned from a break that began with a painful defeat in Dhaka on March 25. Nor is Tahir a proven wicket-taker in this company.
Meanwhile, Australia will hope that Ryan Harris is fit and that Mitchell Johnson swings the ball. The battles of the new ball will be fascinating. Can Smith score runs? Can Phil Hughes?
About the only regret is that only two Test matches have been arranged. The last two meetings between these sides produced first a thrilling victory for South Africa and then a stirring fightback from a young Australian outfit. Followers of the game deserve better than a footling brace of matches tagged on to the end of a tour. Meanwhile the teams are enjoying a five-day break between ODIs. Presumably they will travel from Port Elizabeth to Durban by boat.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It