x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A Test to see if their mettle is truly steel

When South Africa take the field at the Gabba, Graeme Smith and his side will find themselves in an unusual position, favourites to win a series on Australian soil.

South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith, knows the Proteas face a battle to retain their top ranking when they visit Australia. The Test series starts Friday.
South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith, knows the Proteas face a battle to retain their top ranking when they visit Australia. The Test series starts Friday.

Historically, series against Australia have been a fair guide to the state of health of South African cricket. But when they take the field at the Gabba, Graeme Smith and his side will find themselves in an unusual position, favourites to win a series on Australian soil.

Their status as the Test game's No 1 team is at stake, and there will be few South African supporters that expect an easy ride against opponents who have traditionally dominated them.

The rivalry is now 110 years old - South Africa made their first tour of Australia in 1910/11 - but it was not until 1952/53 that South Africa even drew a series against those in baggy green.

Jack Cheetham's side won both the Tests played in Melbourne and although the likes of Russell Endean and Roy McLean made vital runs, the unquestioned hero was Hugh Tayfield, the off-spinner whose 30 wickets nearly matched the combined total taken by the legendary Australian pair of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.

By the following decade, South Africa's cricket team possessed much more than nuisance value.

Graeme Pollock, who averaged more than 60 in the 23 Tests he played, was the fulcrum of a solid batting line-up, and they had bowling options aplenty as Australia were overwhelmed 3-1 in 1966/67.

Trevor Goddard took 26 wickets and chipped in with 294 runs, while Pollock (two) and Denis Lindsay had five centuries between them.

The next time Australia visited, on the back of an exhausting tour of India that they won 3-1 - a series marred by controversy, complaints and riots - they were thrashed 4-0.

A debutant named Barry Richards scored 508 runs, while Pollock amassed 274 at Kingsmead.

His partnership with Richards one afternoon has gone into folklore, with many South Africans claiming that they will never again see such an amalgam of power, placement and timing.

And that was that. Thanks to the government's apartheid policies, a team that had the potential to be one of the greatest never played again.

They could not test themselves against Ian Chappell's formidable Australians or Clive Lloyd's West Indians.

There were stellar performances on the English county circuit from the likes of Richards and Mike Proctor, but the golden boys became international cricket's forgotten generation.

Isolated they may have been, but South Africa did not let domestic standards drop.

Ray Jennings, the wicketkeeper for the Transvaal side that dominated provincial cricket in the 1980s, claims that his team - the Mean Machine - could have matched itself against any of the leading international sides of the time.

When South Africa returned from isolation, we quickly discovered that was no idle boast.

They made the semi-final at the 1992 World Cup and won a Test in Sydney in January 1994 before a loss in Adelaide allowed Australia a share of the spoils.

When it came to the pivotal moments though, South Africa appeared to freeze in the face of Australian tenacity. Whether on home soil or away, they just could not find a way past the opposition.

At Adelaide in January 1998, when they dropped 10 catches to aid Australia's survival bid, Hansie Cronje was so frustrated that he speared the door of the umpire's room with a stump.

Four years later, in a home-and-away contest advertised as the unofficial world championship, Steve Waugh's team pulverised South Africa 5-1.

Even when South Africa finally ended the jinx with victory in Australia in 2008/09, it required some uncharacteristic generosity from their hosts.

Australia dominated in Perth before allowing South Africa to score 414 for victory, and had the upper hand at Melbourne before JP Duminy and Dale Steyn transformed the game with a huge eighth-wicket stand.

When Australia went to South Africa a couple of months later, and won 2-1, it was in keeping with a form book that shows 19 Australian wins and just eight South African triumphs since the Proteas returned to the fold in the early 1990s.

If South Africa win this series - having prevailed on successive tours of England and drawn twice in India - it will push them closer to a place in the Test cricket pantheon.

With a well balanced and settled side, they start favourites, but having succumbed to the pace of Mitchell Johnson at Kingsmead in 2009, they will be especially wary of Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson, the 22 year olds who are at the forefront of a wonderfully gifted set of young Australian quick bowlers.

Patrick Cummins, 19, the poster boy of that group, may miss the entire season, but Pattinson's recent displays in Sheffield Shield cricket suggest that South Africa could be in for a rude surprise. Then again, no one needs to remind them of the menace of the boxing kangaroo.

 

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