Mickey planning Proteas downfall

Back in 2005 South Africa traveled to Australia with high hopes of becoming the first team from these shores to win a Test series down under. They lost 2-0 and Shane Warne described them as “the worst South African team to visit these shores.” It may have been a throwaway line, but the words stung  captain Graeme Smith and coach Mickey Arthur more sharply than Warne could ever have imagined.

They contributed to three years of planning, and a bit of simmering. Three years was a long time to wait for another chance but, amongst all the intervening international assignments, Arthur’s thoughts rarely moved away from the 2008-09 tour to Australia for long.

He first Test of that 2005 series had ended in a creditable draw in Perth. In the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, the hosts were under immense pressure at 248-9 with the pace trio of Makhaya Ntini, Shaun Pollock and Andre Nel having shared the nine wickets despite Ricky Ponting’s 117. Matthew Hayden made 65 but seven other batsmen had been dismissed for single figures.

Then Mike Hussey was dropped on seven. No matter, Glenn McGrath was at the other end. Hussey produced one of the greatest ‘tail protection’ innings in Test history, claiming almost 80% of the strike during a brilliant innings of 122 and a 10th wicket partnership of 107 during which McGrath contributed 11.

Herschelle Gibbs made 94 in SA’s reply of 311 to Australia’s 355 but they ran out of steam and lost what had been a fiercely contested and, until the last day and a half, a very close contest. They had come within a Hussey of making it an extremely close contest. Possible winning it.

Many captains have said they are prepared to lose a game in pursuit of victory but few actually take the chance. A young Smith did exactly that in the final, New Year Test at the SCG. In pursuit of a series-leveling victory, he became just the second captain in Test history to lose after twice declaring.

Centuries from Jacques Kallis (111) and Ashwell Prince (119) helped the tourists to 451-9 declared and the pace trio, led by Nel, dismissed the hosts for 359 in reply – a more than handy lead of 92. Then it rained. A lot. Smith was forced to declare at 194-6 leaving the Aussies a target of 287 in around 70 overs. It was generous, but the captain backed his bowlers – and really wanted the win. Then Nel broke down with an injury, Ponting scored an unbeaten 143 to cap his 100th Test with twin hundreds and that was that. Then Warne’s thing…

So why this reflection now? Because I collaborated with Arthur on his biography when he left the Proteas job after the famous victory in Australia in 2008-09, the result of all that planning. I have an idea of how he works and we have remained intermittently in touch. I know how much work he has put into this tour of his former homeland and how much he would love to see his Pakistan team become the first from the subcontinent to triumph in a Test series here. I am wary, too.

While Pakistan have been playing hard Test cricket against New Zealand in the UAE, the Proteas have been playing T20 cricket. And by the way, where has Mohammad Amir been on the flat wickets in the desert? “Saving him for SA,” Arthur confided recently. “It’s hard work for the seamers on the flat tracks of Dubai and Abu Dhabi…I want him fresh and raring to go. He could make a big impact on South African pitches.”

That’s just one example of the Pakistan coach’s far-sightedness. Although all the top teams are focussing on the World Cup in six months, his motivation is split between that and the inaugural Test Championship to be contested between 2019 and 2021. “I truly believe we have the makings of a great Test match team, and nothing would be give me greater pleasure in my career than becoming the first, official Test champions,” he told me.

Starting with an historic series win here. Nothing personal, of course. He may be an Australian citizen and coach Pakistan now, but he’s still a… winner.

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