Dream Series in Australia end on highest possible note
07 Jan 2009
Peter Roebuck in Sydney
AND they said Test cricket was dead! Roll over Allan Stanford and all the other unbelievers with a concentration span of 10 minutes. An exhilarating Test match ended in its last few moments in the most stunning circumstances as a battered but unbowed visiting captain was beaten by a scything delivery from an exhausted opponent.
After five days of intense and sporting struggle the match was settled with 10 balls to spare.
The last hour was an almost unbearable tale of frustrations, overthrows, dropped catches, bowling changes, field changes, appeals, defiance, courage, endeavour and fine players reaching deep into themselves in search of that last drop of energy.
At times the drama was tinged with farce. Supporters could hardly bring themselves to watch. It was a tense, thrilling dénouement that transfixed two sporting nations. Never mind that the series had been decided. Far from going though the motions two proud teams and 22 proud players exchanged cricketing blows until finally one was forced to yield.
It was an extraordinary finish. Storm clouds were gathering over a scarred ground. An increasingly alarmed Australian side was desperately trying to take the last two wickets thereby securing a much-needed victory. South African tailenders were hanging on for dear life.
Meanwhile all and sundry were watching the rooms wondering whether or not a wounded captain intended to bat. Rumours spread that he had been sighted in white clothes and then swinging a bat but, like the existence of the Loch Ness monster, they remained unconfirmed. Someone said that his plastercast had been cut off and he was trying to put on his batting gloves. Not until the last instant did anyone outside the rooms realise that Smith meant to take his turn at the crease.
And as he threaded his way through the throng and towards the field so the crowd stood to salute him. Hereafter no team-mate will dare to let him down. Everyone rose to the occasion, not just the players. Nationalism was put aside as a brave warrior was given his due. Not that Makhaya Ntini was any less deserving as he too surpassed himself with 75 balls of caution interspersed with sudden shafts of aggression. No one expected him to last but he left the field with his wicket intact.
Throughout these dramas both teams were seen in the best possible light. Twelve months ago the SCG Test against India reached a similar conclusion but followed an altogether more acrimonious course. Now Ricky Ponting laughed and cracked jokes with comrades whilst his counterpart coaxed from his team a performance of the utmost resilience. At daggers drawn for so many years these opponents forged a spirit that tolerated both fierce play and friendship. It was the spirit of true sport.
Doubtless their experiences in IPL forged an understanding. But credit must also be given to leaders responsible for ensuring their charges represented their nations with honour and mutual respect.
Australia took control of the match on the opening day and never quite lost their grip. Winning the toss helped as did the arrival of fresh bowlers but the hosts also displayed unflagging gusto.
As far as atmosphere was concerned it was the most encouraging effort seen from an Australian team for a considerable time. All the more reason to celebrate.
South Africa went down with every flag flying. Seldom has a loss so closely resembled a triumph.
Throughout this campaign this team of many colours has demonstrated an ability to defy the odds. After all South Africa were supposed to lose heavily in Perth but won by six wickets. Things looked even worse in Melbourne till the tailenders went to work. Now the visitors seemed down for the count for a third time and rallied with such tenacity that the day was almost saved.
Smith’s side caught superbly in the slips, unleashed some old fashioned pace with Dale Steyn and fielded some gifted and gritty young batsmen in JP Duminy and AB De Villiers. In short they provided stirring competition and superb entertainment.
And so the summer of Test cricket ended on the highest possible note. After 15 days of intense and fluctuating cricket the South Africans took the spoils and by so doing deserve to be recognised as the strongest side around. But the Australians fought back with skill and application to take a valuable victory. Roll on February 26 when these sides meet again on African soil.