Twenty years back in the international family

How bizarrely appropriate that, on the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s return to international cricket after isolation, a new era should dawn with the most extraordinary day of Test cricket most viewers had ever seen. If South Africa manage to win the match on the third day it may even surpass the 2008 Boxing Day Test at the MCG as the greatest comeback in the history of South African cricket. The dawn of a new era indeed.

There is very little a coach can do during the course of a day’s play to shape the destiny of the contest  – but especially if he’s not even at the ground! The players and management insisted that Gary Kirsten stay at home for the morning session to be wife Deborah following the birth of their third child last night, a healthy girl to keep Josh and James company.

He arrived at the ground at almost exactly the moment the carnage began with wickets falling at an average of nine-minute intervals for the next three hours. As usual, his greatest contribution to the team talk before Australia went out to bat again would have been nothing more than his demeanour. Calm, relaxed and unflustered.

Kirsten has seen and done a great deal in his cricket career already but even this would have tested his ability to keep things in ‘perspective’. One thing you can be sure he didn’t say after seeing his team bowled out for 96 was “well, let’s just go out and bowl them out for less than 50!”

Unlike the humour of Jacques Kallis who famously quipped at the halfway stage of the 438 game “Guys, it’s a 450 wicket – they’re 16 short of par!” Kirsten would merely have emphasised that ‘anything can happen’ in Test cricket and all he expected was for the players to try their hardest until the last ball is bowled and never allow their heads to drop.

Extraordinary days of Test cricket feature in every country’s history. No matter what happens in the next 20 years, two of them are destined to remain fixtures in the top 10 forever. The first was the fourth (and final) day of the New Year’s Test at the SCG when Fanie de Villiers bowled unchanged in the morning session to dismiss Australia for just 111 chasing  117 for victory. The second is the second day of the Boxing Day Test of 2008 at the MCG when J-P Duminy and Dale Steyn batted for four hours to post a ninth-wicket stand of 181 as South Africa overcame stupendous odds to record one of their most unlikely victories.

The result of the current Test will determine how fondly and proudly the dismissal of Australia for just 47 will be remembered. I suspect that victory will ensure the second day a permanent place in the all-time list alongside the first two.

“20 Years, 20 Landmark matches”

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