Tour review

South Africa v Australia, 2008-09

Neil Manthorp

Test matches (3): South Africa 1, Australia 2
One-day internationals (5): South Africa 3, Australia 2
Twenty20 internationals (2): South Africa 2, Australia 0

A beaming Ricky Ponting with the series trophy, South Africa v Australia, 3rd Test, 4th day, Cape Town, March 22, 2009
Ricky Ponting's team had its revenge in the Test series © Getty Images

Not a single member of the South African team would be happy offering the emotional hangover of their country's first series win in Australia as an excuse for their below-par performance in the ensuing home series. But, though it might be a weak excuse, it is a fact. Fortified by their triumphs in the Tests and one-day games, and moved by the consistent and concerted physical efforts of so many senior players, the South African management were sufficiently emboldened to order everyone to treat the majority of the three weeks between series as a well-earned vacation.

Originally, they were not due to reconvene until three days before the First Test - but ten days after the squad's return, the coach Mickey Arthur began to have doubts about his own plan and told his charges that the new term was starting two days earlier (still only five days before the Test).

There was nothing wrong with the principle of rewarding the players with time off, nor the idea of preserving hard-working bodies for a new challenge, but it was the idea of a complete break from the game, for so long, which was flawed. Dale Steyn headed to the country for two weeks and never bowled a ball, and he wasn't the only one. No wonder they were rusty. Courtney Walsh, the most relentless fast-bowling machine of recent times, was a TVcommentator during the series. He was gobsmacked by Steyn's preparation: "For 20 years I never went three days without bowling a ball," he said. "If he was going hunting and wanted to get away from it all, then he should have taken a ball with him, scratched out 22 yards in the dirt, and bowled an over at a thorn tree. That's all it takes to keep the rhythm."

None of this should detract from the achievement of Ricky Ponting and his very new team in claiming a revenge 2-1 victory in the Test series. When he was asked how it felt winning with a side he had built rather than inherited, Ponting's chest visibly swelled with pride: "Very, very special. It's up among the best achievements of my career. The new guys we brought into the squad have risen to the challenges presented to them, and I'm extremely proud of every single one of them."

For the first time in Ponting's life, let alone his career as captain, he had started a series as the underdog. The experience not only galled him, but galvanised his ambition and his ability to formulate game plans very different and more imaginative than the "Well, we have Warne and McGrath" strategy with which he had grown up as a leader.

The resources at Ponting's disposal were less than those at Graeme Smith's, but he gave each player a very specific role to perform, and they responded.

Mitchell Johnson needed to be magnificent for the plan to come together - and he was. Peter Siddle, suddenly an automatic choice, needed to be as strong as an ox - and he was. Another fast bowler, Ben Hilfenhaus, surprisingly preferred to Doug Bollinger, also showed he was up to the task.

The fourth-seamer role, so often the doing and undoing of touring teams, was left in the hands of the medium-paced trundler Andrew McDonald, an allrounder so underappreciated when he was first called up for the final Test at Sydney in January that it was likened to "raising the white flag" by some newspapers. Yet Ponting now had cards he had dealt himself, and one of them was the relentlessly accurate but otherwise largely unthreatening McDonald who, by dint of his red hair and slightly larger than average ears, was inevitably known as "Ronnie" McDonald, after the clown mascot of the world's biggest burger chain.

Ronnie's job was to bowl metronomic maidens while Johnson, Siddle and Hilfenhaus took wickets. Without a spinner he trusted, Ponting opted for Marcus North, the 29-year-old Western Australian captain, as a No. 6 batsman who could do a tidy job with the ball. And North, who had seemingly been destined for an entire career as a good first-class journeyman, responded with a century on debut and more than a couple of decent overs of off-spin. But it was McDonald's ability to frustrate South Africa's batsmen with his maddeningly straight, maddeningly medium-paced deliveries which really represented the "new" Australia, the world champions who had to graft at the coal-face for the first time in a decade and a half, rather than rely upon half a dozen or more champions to get the job done.

There were more unsung heroes for Australia but, naturally, the big-name players also responded. Ponting had his moments, and Johnson was quite phenomenal not only as a fast bowler but as an all-rounder, but the other star was a kid nobody in South Africa had heard of - Phillip Hughes. The 20-yearold opener looked, technically and aesthetically, like a club No. 9. Maybe No. 10. Yet his idiosyncratic style earned him 415 runs in the series, and played a vital part in winning it. He will either threaten every batting record ever set, or fade quickly after a couple of years once bowlers work him out. It almost seemed as though he had started out with the idea of doing everything the opposite way round from the coaching manual - but those who had known him best and for longest were betting on 10,000 Test runs even before he had faced a ball. It's not how that matters, it's how many.

South Africa finally did themselves justice and showed what might have been with the most comprehensive victory of all the season's six Tests when the teams reached Cape Town. It wasn't quite enough to earn them the ICC's No. 1 ranking, but it was proof that they were still a team on the rise and that Australia would have a far harder job hanging on to the top spot than they had had for the previous six years.

There was some compensation for the hosts in the limited-overs games, where they maintained their recent superiority and also unearthed a new starlet in Roelof van der Merwe, a hard-hitting slow left-armer from the Titans, whose instant success earned him an IPL contract with the Bangalore Royal Challengers.

Match reports for

Tour Match: South African Board President's XI v Australians at Potchefstroom, Feb 20-22, 2009
Report | Scorecard

1st Test: South Africa v Australia at Johannesburg, Feb 26-Mar 2, 2009
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2nd Test: South Africa v Australia at Durban, Mar 6-10, 2009
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3rd Test: South Africa v Australia at Cape Town, Mar 19-22, 2009
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1st T20I: South Africa v Australia at Johannesburg, Mar 27, 2009
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2nd T20I: South Africa v Australia at Centurion, Mar 29, 2009
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1st ODI: South Africa v Australia at Durban, Apr 3, 2009
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2nd ODI: South Africa v Australia at Centurion, Apr 5, 2009
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3rd ODI: South Africa v Australia at Cape Town, Apr 9, 2009
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4th ODI: South Africa v Australia at Port Elizabeth, Apr 13, 2009
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5th ODI: South Africa v Australia at Johannesburg, Apr 17, 2009
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© John Wisden & Co.