South African cricket, the national team and even the administration, attempted to emulate Australia for the best part of 15 years because they were always winning — at home and away — and must be doing things the best way.
Only when the Proteas stopped attempting to be the Aussies and began looking for an alternative approach, a South African way, did they begin to make a difference.
Beating Australia at their own rough-and-tumble game was disastrous, year after year.
Bravado and a bit of bullying worked against every other nation but against Australia it backfired. When that reality sank in, there was no alternative and they were sitting ducks. Even the great Steve Waugh admitted years later that, man for man, South Africa were the equal of his side with Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock leading the attack, Jacques Kallis mastering the middle order and a clutch of all-rounders providing more depth and options than he ever had. But they always lost.
Things have changed — not only did South Africa win for the first time on Australian shores eight years ago, but they have now done so three times in succession following the thunderous thrashing in Hobart by an innings and 80 runs. They have emulated the great West Indies sides of the 1980s and early 1990s in completing a winning hat trick.
It’s not just on the field where things have been turned upside down. Hard as it is to imagine, some of Australia’s foremost thinkers are beginning to look beyond their own team’s inadequacies and ask what South Africa are doing right. Selection criteria and workload management are top of the list.
Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada are hot topics of conversation. The former suffered from pace and physique discrimination for years despite taking an eye-popping 230-plus first-class wickets at an average of 20 before Gary Kirsten finally persuaded the selectors that body fat and speed stats were not, in fact, prerequisites for international selection. They still are in Australia.
Whereas Mitchell Starc, returning from a two-month injury break before the first Test, was withdrawn from his solitary Sheffield Shield first-class match after one innings as a “precaution”, Rabada has bowled at full pace in almost every game. South Africa’s approach is to enjoy things while they are going well and have replacements ready for when inevitable injuries happen.
Cricket Australia have become slaves to the sports and medical science gurus, who believe that injuries can be prevented by limiting the number of balls a fast bowler delivers in a given period — and devaluing the status of the country’s premier domestic competition. Once again, “old-fashioned” cricket experts are pointing towards South Africa’s methods just as Australia’s used to be coveted by South Africa.
Honesty and transparency have been in short supply at times in South Africa’s past but that culture appears to be on the wane. Even the quota system, as unpopular as it is with the players, is now spoken about without hesitation.
Selection convenor Linda Zondi pulled no punches when addressing it this week: “Cricket South Africa and the board are there to make policies and it is our job to implement those policies regardless of anything else. Fortunately for us, we are selecting the team on merit regardless of targets or colour at the moment. We are fortunate that the players all deserve to be there, and there are many young players coming through. The annual target gives us flexibility if we need that from a match-to-match basis,” Zondi said, unblinkingly acknowledging that compromise may be necessary.
His Australian counterpart, Rod Marsh, unburdened by such complexity but worn down by the team’s repeated failure and an apparent lack of emerging talent, resigned on Wednesday.
“Clearly it is time for some fresh thinking, just as it is for our Test team to welcome some new faces as we build for the future,” he said. “I have always had the best interests of Australian cricket foremost in my heart, and that’s why I have made this decision. … We will be great again.”
Ten years ago the Proteas were wondering whether they would ever be great on Australian turf. Now they are.
But some of the gloss from their series victory may be erased by the gloss captain Faf du Plessis apparently applied to the ball during the Hobart Test. Television footage showed the captain placing most of his right index finger into his mouth several times to extract saliva from a white sweet.
Transferring sugar to the ball is a common method of maintaining the shine on one side of the ball after the original lacquer has disappeared. England opener Marcus Trescothick admitted in his 2008 memoir that it had been a vital ingredient of England’s famous Ashes series victory in 2005. It contravenes the laws of the game but it hard to police.
The International Cricket Council is currently reviewing the footage.
Meanwhile, having inflicted the first-ever one-day international whitewash on Australia last month, there is just one record remaining for the Proteas. No team has ever performed a Test clean sweep against Australia. Ever. The final day-night Test, begins in Adelaide on November 24.
“We are aware of that record,” said Du Plessis. “We said during the ODI series that we wanted to go places no other team has been before and the same applies in Test cricket. We won’t be taking our foot off the accelerator. Not at all.”