The success of South Africa's first tour of Australia for 30 years was assured at Sydney, when a young side - temporarily under the direction of Hansie Cronje, after an injury to the captain Kepler Wessels - pulled off a remarkable victory, dismissing Australia for 111 to win the Second Test by the slender margin of five runs.
That Sydney triumph had looked most unlikely from the first day, when South Africa slid to 169 all out, with Shane Warne taking seven wickets. On an indifferent pitch, Australia's 292 seemed to have insured them against defeat, and when South Africa were 110 for five a premature end was in sight. However, Jonty Rhodes organised the later order to stretch the lead into three figures. Australia's hopes of victory with a day to spare were dashed by the lively Fanie de Villiers, who reduced the home side to 63 for four that night. Next morning Australia soon lost Allan Border, and from then on a crowd of around 12,000 - admitted free - held its collective breath as Australia inched towards the target. All looked lost at 75 for eight, but then Craig McDermott played a forthright innings - until last man Glenn McGrath popped a return catch to De Villiers, who took ten for 123 in the match, to ignite South African celebrations from Sydney to Soweto. Australian batsmen are supposed to be superstitious about 87 rather than Nelson, but 111 had become the unlucky number of Australian cricket, with this collapse joining those against England at Melbourne and Adelaide in 1954-55, Sydney in 1978-79, and Headingley in 1981.
The euphoria of the historic Sydney victory outweighed an anticlimactic end to the tour, defeat in the one-day World Series finals being followed by a comprehensive reverse in the Adelaide Test. Despite this, the Test series was shared, mirroring the performance of South Africa's last two touring team in Australia, in 1952-53 and 1963-64; the First Test had been ruined by unseasonal weather, which allowed little more than four hours' play over the first three days at Melbourne.
Wessels, returning to the country for which he played 24 Tests in the 1980s, was a reliable batting bulwark, although his effectiveness was reduced first by an old knee injury, and then, in the Sydney Test, a broken finger. His stirring response to the second injury was to promote himself two places in the batting order. His vice-captain, Cronje - at 24 the youngest player in the party - played several impressive innings and showed signs of maturing into a genuine Test No. 3. His form dropped off after he assumed the captaincy on Wessels' return home, and it was with some relief that he handed back the reins when the teams reconvened in South Africa - another month, another Test series.
Although opener Andrew Hudson was solid, South Africa had some problems with their middle-order batting. Daryll Cullinan - fresh from a record score of 337 not out at home - made a century against Queensland, but disappointed in the Tests, where he regularly failed to spot Warne's well-disguised flipper. Dave Callaghan was given few opportunities outside the one-day matches. When all-rounder Brian McMillan - another who struggled in vain to work out the wiles of Warne - injured his knee, the reinforcement was Western Province opener Gary Kirsten. A left-hander with a penchant for the cut, he looked limited at first but, given the encouragement of a regular place, blossomed, scoring South Africa's only century of the one-day series in the first final.
The Kirsten family completed a double after Wessels's injury, when Peter, Gary's 38-year-old half-brother, was summoned as an experienced replacement. He had an eventful time: he scored 97 in his first match, using a runner after injuring a hamstring, and later had his cheekbone broken by a McGrath bouncer. After plastic surgery, he returned just five days later for the one-day finals, which South Africa reached after some spirited efforts in their later matches. Then, in the Third Test, he was fined twice for dissent. But, overall, people thought South Africa needed a few more Kirstens. Rhodes overcame a broken finger to play some important innings, none more so than his rearguard 76 at Sydney, and his fielding was magnificent. The side's ground fielding, indeed, was good to watch, although an inordinate number of slip catches went down in the Tests, many of them through the hands of the luckless Cullinan.
Such is South Africa's current strength in fast bowling that they were able to shrug off the absence of injured left-armer Brett Schultz, who had topped the averages on the preceding Sri Lankan tour. The surprise was De Villiers, who had an undistinguished season with Kent in 1990. In Australia he proved the steadiest bowler at the death in the one-day games, and crowned his trip with ten wickets in the epic Sydney Test. Donald let rip at times - probably his fastest spell came in the rain-ruined First Test but showed signs of being overbowled. The inconsistent Richard Snell - another with one indifferent county season (with Somerset) behind him - bowled well when the mood took him. Medium-pacer Craig Matthews bowled some tight spells, and looked likely to prosper on English pitches, Neither of the spinners looked genuinely Test-class. Dave Rundle had little opportunity - although he took four for 42 on his international debut - while his fellow off-spinner Pat Symcox, for all his bullish appealing, seemed unlikely to trouble good batsmen on good pitches. A big man with a prancing action, Symcox did contribute a long, steady spell at Sydney, and it should perhaps be borne in mind that Australia's off-spinner, Tim May, toiled through 107 overs in the Tests before taking a wicket. The wicket-keeping was in the safe hands of Dave Richardson; his ability left little scope for his deputy, Errol Stewart.
The South Africans showed that they had come to terms with the demands of Test cricket. When all their fast bowlers are fit - and when the batsmen do not have to face a bowler of the calibre of Warne - they will prove doughty opponents for any of the Test-playing nations. The Australians did not learn a great deal from the series. Warne was the pick of the bowlers but, in the absence of the injured Hughes, the pace attack looked limited, despite the raw promise of McGrath. Mark Taylor's 170 at Melbourne answered those critics anxious to find a place, at his expense, for the prolific Queenslander Matthew Hayden, while Michael Slater continued to show signs of genius, interspersed with some across-the-line hitting. Border, David Boon and Mark Waugh were all relatively quiet, but Steve Waugh - unfit for the first two Tests - returned to the fold with a scintillating 164 (and four for 26) at Adelaide, a one-off performance which, oddly, earned him the Man of the Series award.