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09 Jan 2009
Ray White

EVER since “redemption”, as Tony Greig calls it, the scheduling of the Test series between Australia and South Africa has been something of an anachronism.

No other series between the big teams of world cricket has been regularly confined to just three matches let alone back-to-back confrontations home and away.

When South Africa returned to international cricket there were some Australians who doubted the capacity of the prodigal sons to be competitive. Accordingly, the initial series between the two countries were confined to three matches.

Doubts about SA’s strength should have been dismissed after the first two shared series, but despite the entreaties of the UCB the Australians refused to grant the Proteas an extra Test, despite continuing to play four and sometimes five Tests against a steadily decaying West Indies team.

The other nonsense was the agreement that Tests in Australia would always be played over the choice holiday period whereas SA had to make do with an immediate follow-up series back home when the working and academic year, bereft of public holidays, was in full swing.

As is usual in affairs of Australian cricket the hand of Channel 9 was behind these arrangements.

Kerry Packer did not want to lose the cheap entertainment cricket afforded his television station during a time when Australian women forsake their habit of watching daytime soapies.

During the long years of Australian dominance the South Africans failed to convince the ACB of the need to change these arrangements, but that has surely changed with the result and splendid cricket of the series just ended.

It is an absurdity that these teams are now getting ready to face each other again.

Both teams have injury problems to key players who may or may not be fit when the battle resumes next month in Johannesburg. It also means that, after the surfeit of this summer, the two teams will not meet again for another four years. This strikes me as too long a gap for meetings between the top two sides in the world.

A more sensible arrangement would be for a single series to be played every two years with each country taking it in turns to host the matches over the summer holidays.

It is not always about the revenues generated from TV but also about getting crowds to return to Test cricket in South Africa. Let us be done, too, with the paltry three-match series and never again should any Tests be played on a back-to-back basis irrespective of the demands of the Indian Twenty20 circus.

As it is, both teams will be hoping that their battered players will be fit and fresh when the Johannesburg Test starts (in the midst of the highveld’s rainy season), but the chances are that some players will be missing.

All South Africans will be praying that those available will include their newly-loved captain who is rapidly becoming an iconic figure amongst his countrymen. His dramatic and heroic failure to save the Sydney Test has won him a place in South African hearts that were once turned against him in his more youthful, but less endearing years.

It is ironic after all that he has already achieved in the game that Smith may be remembered more for that brave innings of half an hour at the SCG than any of his match-winning performances.

Rarely has a man of the series been more richly deserved even though there was no shortage of candidates.

He has emerged from this tour as the dominant figure in world cricket. That he may have as much as another decade in the game is an asset to South African cricket that is beyond a price.

Several of his team-mates increased their reputations in Australia. JP Duminy arrived down under without an international reputation, but has left it as one of the game’s brightest young stars.

AB de Villiers showed the Australians why he is so highly regarded not just as a batsman, but also as one of the greatest catchers the game has ever seen. Hashim Amla enchanted the Australians although he does need to convert his good starts into match-winning hundreds.

Ashwell Prince, sadly, had no chances to build on his performances in England but, among the batsmen, Kallis and McKenzie were disappointing. Kallis is running out of chances to deliver a match-winning performance with the bat against the Aussies and one cannot help feeling that the amount of bowling asked of him has affected his concentration at the crease.

All the bowlers had their moments with the ball and came to the party in a thrilling manner with the bat to help the team into a winning position in the Melbourne Test. Morkel made enough encouraging progress to suggest that better days lie ahead for him.

The same team played in all three Test matches, which left the rest of the squad without cricket for two months. This is another reason why the three-cluster series should not be tried again.
It was a good tour for Mickey Arthur and one waits with interest to learn what sort of difference Duncan Fletcher made to the success of the tour down under.

For all my reservations about the wisdom of another series taking place so soon, I cannot wait for it to start. One hopes that the widespread interest sparked by the success of Smith and his men will be reflected through the turnstiles.

•Ray White is a former UCB president.

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