Test matches (3): South Africa 2, New Zealand 0
Perhaps South African spectators were jaded by having had the emphatic Australians in their faces; perhaps the New Zealand way of cricket proved too subtly flavoured to satisfy barbecue tastes. Or was it that South Africans and New Zealanders both thought April and May meant the rugby season? Whatever the answer, the problem was obvious. On the Saturday of the Third Test, The Star, Johannesburg's main daily paper, led its sports pages with the exploits of the American golfing prodigy Michelle Wie. Cricket? The Wanderers Test match? It had been shoved on to the inside pages, snugly under cover. Which is where most of us who had braved the uncharitable chill of another wintry Highveld morning would rather have been.
After Australia had won five out of six Tests against them, home and away, South Africa needed a bandage to tend their wounds, otherwise the late, late show of this three-Test series would have vanished completely from public gaze. The Tests were played nearly six months after the one-day leg of New Zealand's tour (see Wisden 2006, page 1164) because of disruption caused by the scheduling of the Super Series in Australia.
At least the Johannesburg Test was over in three days, with South Africa winning to wrap up the series 2-0. The First Test at Centurion had lingered miserably into the fifth morning, but the result was the same. Both were warm memories compared to the Second Test. The Cape Town groundsman, Christo Erasmus, had been criticised for his pitch for the Australian Test, which South Africa lost in three days. Erasmus, not surprisingly, played safe. Catatonic cricket duly followed, as did the inevitable draw.
With two of the three pitches tilted towards fast bowling, the series might have been a clash of the quicks. That was until a knee injury before the First Test put Shane Bond on a flight home. South Africa held the only remaining ace, Makhaya Ntini. In past seasons Ntini had survived and prospered on determination and a level of fitness known to few other human beings, let alone cricketers. Now he finally seemed to discover the benefits of his mounting experience. He took 20 wickets at 20.55, with three fivewicket hauls. "Ntini was almost a lone man, almost the only go-to bowler that Graeme Smith had," said Allan Donald, who was once in the same position. "I'm not sure what more you can say, except that he was absolutely magnificent. He was outrageously fantastic." Donald, not normally a giddy gusher, found that Ntini gave him little choice.
Ntini took on the mantle once worn by Donald, and then by Shaun Pollock. This autumnal series poignantly confirmed that Pollock was in the autumn of his career. For New Zealand, it was sadder all round, and they left for home with few positives. Stephen Fleming's 262 at Cape Town was a monument to patience and application, but Bond's future looked under threat, while the conditions throughout denied Daniel Vettori the opportunity to ask difficult questions.