x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Australia v South Africa: only a win will help draw a line

When the sides shared the first Test, it was only their second stalemate since January 1998 - that is over 21 Tests.

Rory Kleinveldt, right, proved to be a weak link in the bowling department for South Africa that allowed Australian captain Michael Clarke, left, to score a double hundred and force a rare draw between the two sides.
Rory Kleinveldt, right, proved to be a weak link in the bowling department for South Africa that allowed Australian captain Michael Clarke, left, to score a double hundred and force a rare draw between the two sides.

When Australia and South Africa agreed to call it even with 11 overs left in Brisbane last week, it jarred immediately.

Just why was difficult to place until a quick statistics check revealed the reason: that draw was the first inconclusive result in their rivalry in seven years and 14 Tests.

Even better, it was only their second stalemate since January 1998 - that is over 21 Tests, so it is not as if the sample is small - and if one entire day had not been washed out at the Gabba, then a result was inevitable.

It is the kind of revelation that might look surprising at first but, in hindsight, seems obvious, a little like the conclusion to any game of Cluedo.

Drawn Tests are a gradually dying breed throughout the world (46 per cent of Tests in the 1980s were drawn; only 25 per cent in the first decade of this millennium according to the 2012 Wisden Almanack) but what this tells us is that Australia and South Africa is a rivalry formed from the very jagged, sharp edges of pure results, not from the fluffy pillow-comfort of draws.

There has been no grey between the two: either Australia are better (usually) or South Africa are (recently, but not by much), and nothing else.

This is not to say anything of the quality of the Tests because not many have been particularly equal or close as contests go.

But it is also revealing of how these two sides play. It is easy to overlook this because, after all every side, every one, professional or amateur or recreational, plays to win.

It is the one thing we all want from sport, just at different levels in a ladder of desire maybe.

These two sides operate at a higher level on this ladder, where winning - or wanting to win - is so deeply embedded in their core, that it is worth losing to try to win (this is in a diffuse sense, especially for South Africa where the captain Graeme Smith is often criticised for not being positive enough).

And last week, in that Test, this was clear.

Australia worked their way into a position from which they could actually win, despite conceding 450 runs and losing a day.

South Africa were unhappy with their own performance in the general way that they did not win the Test, any Test. This despite being a player short after JP Duminy's early injury ruled him out of batting in either innings.

Almost any other side in Australia's situation, against the world's top-ranked Test side, even if at home, would have happily settled for a draw and been pretty content with it.

And so South Africa did not win: Australia are unbeaten at Brisbane for 24 years and 24 Tests, winning 17. Any other side would be happy to move on from Brisbane undefeated.

Instead there is minor griping that South Africa have not won two Tests in a row for three years.

To this eye South Africa still seem the more likely winners of the series. They look closer to a finished product in any case so that Brisbane felt like the obligatory one-off flat Test for their bowlers and, in the second innings, the equally inevitable mishap that was due upon the top order, rather than the creeping onset of complacency.

Duminy's absence will hurt. But if they bring in a specialist wicketkeeper, it may allow them space to wriggle out from answering the AB de Villiers question for now, namely that his batting is being compromised a little by his wicketkeeping duties in the five-day game.

Australia are still reassembling and doing it gradually, but also menacingly and inevitably like the T-1000 from Terminator 2, little blobs of liquid nitrogen finding their way to one whole monster. It is still some way away.

They have a top order that is not convincing anyone in a hurry. And Ricky Ponting may never catch up to Sachin Tendulkar for Test runs or average, but he is equalling him as a most talked about subject of imminent farewells.

Most fascinating though is the kerfuffle they find themselves in over whether Shane Watson will play or not.

On the level, this should simply be about indecision over an injury-prone player, a hulking Twenty20 legend but a frail, unfulfilled and interrupted Test cricketer.

But you cannot help but think that it is also about a wider schism within Australia's priorities, between wanting to lead the way into a brand new Twenty20 future, while also wanting to be guardians preserving and celebrating the game's oldest, most pristine format.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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