Everything and Nothing to play for

New Zealand’s Black Caps and South Africa’s Proteas square up to each other from Friday in six weeks of cross-format competition that promises to be riveting in its intensity and commitment. It will, at times, resemble an old-fashioned fight to the death but nothing could be further from the truth.

Occasionally in sport there emerges a contest between two combatants which reaches the fiercest levels of ‘battle’ and, at the same time, ultimate levels of respect. Tennis aficionados tell me that Major finals between the Williams sisters have been like that.

Rugby stories abound of teams knocking the teeth out of each other for 80 minutes and then spending the evening together like long-lost brothers. Every sport has these contests, although less and less as professionalism is somehow interpreted as demanding an aloofness bordering on disrespect for the opposition.

Happily, cricket matches between New Zealand and South Africa in recent years have been gleaming examples of how modern sport can, and should be, combining the best of old-world camaraderie and respect with the latest in sports science, physical conditioning and technical knowledge.

New Zealand plunged to their all-time in the modern era when they were bowled out for 45 in a Test match at Newlands four years ago. South Africa experienced their post-isolation nadir at the World Cup semi final in Auckland two years ago, for a variety of reasons.

But both teams have been able to turn disaster into triumph and use those low points as fuel for a brighter future. Many of the senior players from both countries are also bound by another shared motivation – not to play or behave like the Australians. It’s true. Men like Brendon McCullum, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis will play to win at any cricketing cost, but not at all costs. They have all been dismayed by the words and actions of the opposition in recent contests against the Aussies and they believe there is a different, better way to play the game.

Ranked first and third in ODI cricket, the Proteas and Black Caps are teams ‘on the up’ and still improving. The quality of cricket between them will be high but, for those who care about these things, so will the level of respect. Sure, tempers will fray and emotions boil over, but nothing will extend beyond the heat of the moment and, afterwards, old friendships will be strengthened and new ones made.

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