Mark Boucher briefly took over from Shaun Pollock as captain of the national side four years ago when Australia opened their tour of South Africa with victory by an innings and 360 runs at the Wanderers. Asked afterwards whether he felt “embarrassed”, he replied “no.”
There were two reasons, and they were both simple. The match was lost and it made little difference how great the margin was. Just as Retief Goosen admitted recently that he often ‘gave up’ on the final day of tournaments if he wasn’t in contention to win, cricketers often find the principle of ‘playing for pride’ easier than the reality.
The second is that Australia were simply much, much better. It may hurt losing a sporting contest but there is no shame in losing to an opponent which is better. On most such occasions the vanquished are happy to have, at least, displayed an acceptable range of their own skills and to have competed to the best of their ability.
Although the national team of four years ago lost five out of six Tests to Australia, four of them by whopping margins, the gulf in class and preparation between the teams was so vast that the players on both sides knew a genuine contest was unlikely.
Which is precisely why the 2004/05 tour to Australia feels so different because the teams are far more evenly matched than they were four years ago and, for that matter, eight years ago. Unlike on those previous tours to Australia, Graeme Smith’s side has played the lead role in fashioning its own demise. And that hurts far, far more than being beaten by a better team.
Perhaps Ricky Ponting’s team are better than Smith’s because, in Test cricket, the better team wins 19 times out of 20. But on an individual, head-to-head basis the XIs have stood toe-to-toe and neither has backed down or been outplayed in any aspect of the game. Except for one.
Catching has been the difference between the teams as well as their ability to take advantage of a life. Andre Nel spilled a return catch from Matthew Hayden at the end of the third day’s play when he was on 27 and, on current form, he’ll complete a century on day four. If he did he would be the fourth Australian to do so after being dropped early in his innings.
Nel’s admittedly difficult catch was the 11th to be dropped so far and the total of runs scored by the lucky batsman after their reprieves stands at 528.
Australia, on the other hand, have dropped exactly nought catches. The only ‘life’ to have been handed to a South African batsmen came in Perth when Mark Boucher, on 61,virtually middled the ball into Adam Gilchrist’s gloves only for umpire Steve Bucknor to suffer another one of his ‘senior moments’ and give it ‘not out’. Boucher was out for 62 in the next over.
If Nel had caught Ponting on 17 on the first day and Jacques Kallis had held Michael Hussey on 27 on day two, Australia would – in theory – have been bowled out for 160 making South Africa’s first innings score of 311 worth a lead of 151. Try coming back from that – even if you are Australia.
But ‘if’ is the dirtiest two-letter word in the English language and the truth is bleak. Yet another last day salvage operation faces Smith and his team but the difference between the WACA in Perth and the MCG in Melbourne is the bounce. Last week it was still reliable and predictable on days four and five. This week it is not. Good batsmen can cope with spin and sideways movement but their is nothing anyone can do to keep out a ball that shoots along the ground at 140 kilometres an hour.
So, barring a bowling performance of miraculous brilliance on the fourth morning, South Africa are facing defeat. That is bad enough, but far worse is the knowledge that it is virtually all their own fault.
The challenge next week will be to remind themselves that Sydney is not the “just turn up and you’ve won” ground for Australia that many people believe. In the last three years England have won there and India, in Steve Waugh’s final Test, scored 700. There is still much to play for – especially if Smith’s men start catching the ball.
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