South Africa’s 1-0 win over Australia in the latter’s den asserted that they deserve the number one ranking in Tests. At the same time, it wasn’t an easy win for the Proteas. They hardly dominated any of the three Tests, and the only reason they managed to overcome Australia is because they were the better side when it came to capturing the big moments. They held on for a draw in the first two Tests despite being in deep trouble and, at Perth, showed great character to recover from a horrendous start.
In a sense, the series was reflection of the changing order in world cricket. Ricky Ponting, who was on his way out, struggled to find the runs he desired to in his last series despite the best of efforts. On the other hand, Faf du Plessis, making his Test debut, demonstrated his capability to the world in no uncertain terms – very similar to manner in which Punter entered the Test arena 17 years ago, at the same venue where he played in his farewell Test. The contrasting fortunes of the two men -- one on his way out and the other making an instant impression right away –was symptomatic of how the series panned out.
Australia had their moments in all three games, but unlike the golden days of old, they do not possess the same ability to make the best use of favourable conditions. At Gabba, they allowed South Africa to escape by the scruff of their neck. At Adelaide, du Plessis was impossible to dislodge. If he rescued the side in the first innings with a wonderful debut half-century, he was unbelievable dour in the second essay when South Africa had to bat on and on to save the game. His knock in the second innings possibly took a lot out of the Aussie bowlers, and they were too exasperated to offer much at Perth.
The Aussies did fight back hard early on in the third Test. However, the mental blocked they had developed against du Plessis came to haunt them again. Even as all others in the side struggled, this rookie South African middle-order batsman played as if he was batting on a totally different surface, completely unaffected by the situation. The fact that he remained unbeaten in South Africa’s first innings reiterated how much he had got into the heads of the Aussie bowlers.
Once du Plessis came up with his rescue act, the Australian batsman had nothing left to offer. Their skipper Michael Clarke had a rare failure in the game, and that affected Australia’s chances fatally. The Aussie skipper was highly unlucky to have ended up on the losing side. After all, how many batsmen end up being part of a losing squad after scoring two double hundreds? Clarke deserved to be man of the series, but the Proteas played equally well the snatch the series out of the home side’s grasp.
It wasn’t a fairy tale ending for Ponting, but the guard of honour he got was surely stuff of legends. It only showed how much opponents respect him. At the end of the day, that’s as important as winning and losing is in sport.
--By A Cricket Analyst