Stop the speculation. What will the selectors do? Ponting: Will they drop him or not? Haddin: Will they or won’t they? Same for Johnson. But who cares? Australia has achieved a remarkable victory to square a wonderful “series” and I for one, intend to enjoy that.
However, let me say this: We should be running around excitedly exclaiming what a wonderful series and that cricket is the real winner. But has cricket been the winner? There has already been a lot of talk before the series started, that it was a shame, a travesty, that this series has been reduced to two matches. This is even more the case now, given the drawn state of the series and the excitement and enjoyment that this brief series provided. I only wish Roebuck could have been with us to see the end of it.
The ICC says that the term “series” can be officially applied to any series of matches that extends beyond one match. I think there is a given understanding that this condition was introduced so that the super powers could settle for playing the minnows for only two matches. Given that it is a condition that all Test nations play home and away series at least every five years, against all other Test nations, the ICC sensibly made some allowance to make this more manageable.
The spirit of this condition was never intended to see the super powers playing each other in two Test series. The South African cricket board has taken advantage of a gentleman’s agreement and it is to its own, and to cricket’s detriment. It devalues Test cricket. Australian and English cricket has long known the value of a series of adequate length. In fact, The Ashes cannot be contested in a series of under four matches.
There has been much speculation about certain Australian cricketers. In particular, would Ponting, Haddin and Johnson keep their places? Of course, the team’s transgressions are always going to be examined more closely after the team has been dismissed for 47 and suffered a thumping loss. But on balance, even disregarding the 47, these questions were all very reasonable. But in this match, all of these players did something to achieve a victory and will probably retain their places, given the current injury concerns and the lack of outstanding alternatives. The old adage, “never change a winning team” is by no means fool proof but perhaps it has some merit in this case.
There were some questions answered in this Test. One of the big questions after the 1st Test was how could Australia bounce back from that humiliating 47? Firstly, even if they had ultimately lost, they bounced back. One way or another, they were competitive throughout the match. But given that they did win, let me suggest that the answer is that they did it through good leadership, a great deal of determination, by searching the depths of their aging resources and by uncorking the fountain of youth.
Enough on Cummins already. But let’s not forget Khawaja. He has shown some promise without delivering much to date, but what a time to do it. And it seems quite fitting that he had such a crucial partnership with Ponting. Who will remember in 12-15 years time, when Khawaja and Cummins’ are contemplating retirement, that their Test careers briefly overlapped with the great Ricky Ponting?
The balance of this excellent Test match changed often, with neither team managing ever to gain control. At any point in the match, you could have said that one team was in front but not decisively. For example on day one, with South Africa at 4/241, they would have been in front, but not out of site. Less than an hour later, they were all out for 266 and things had changed. This was repeated many times over five days with the occasional, good partnership and many batting collapses and mini collapses, and let it be said, plenty of good bowling.
Even at the death, with Australia at 8/292, with 18 runs to make, it was anyone’s match. When both Ponting and Clarke fell quickly on the final morning, it seemed inevitable that South Africa would win. But they didn’t. The Australians dug deep and through no one individual or even partnership, they scraped together the required runs. With 55 here and 39 there and another 40 from another, they cobbled together their first total of 300 for the series. It should also be remembered that no team has ever before scored more than 300 to win at The Wanderers. How fitting that Pat Cummins hit the winning runs with an emphatic pull to the fence. I am in no doubt that Glenn McGrath would be envious.
This Australian team has taken some stick and criticism – the nation yearns for the glory days. And there is no doubt that the team has some weaknesses – being dismissed for 47 is still unfathomable. But in fairness, they have shown some strengths. Let us not forget that this is only Clarke’s second series as captain. The team has played both series away from home and has won one and drawn the other. That means Clarke hasn’t lost a series. And let us not forget that the team has suffered injuries to key players at key times (Harris, Marsh and Watson) and still remained competitive. The way the team pulled together in this game, and played very good cricket for most of the match is a credit to them. They were behind at times but they never stopped fighting. They caught and eventually passed South Africa.
My mind turns back to Steve Waugh’s first series as captain. That was against West Indies in the West Indies. Australia crushed the Windies in the 1st Test, dismissing them for 51 in the fourth innings. People wondered how the Windies could ever recover. But they did. They won the next two Tests, forcing Australia to win the final match of the series to draw the series. Incidentally, I think that may have been the last time Australia came from behind in a series.
However, the point I want to make is that the West Indies resurgence was done essentially on the back of one man, if I may use the humble term “man” to describe Brian Lara in 1999. Lara played two epic innings and won two Tests almost single-handedly. What Australia has done in South Africa is quite different. The team spirit and courage they have displayed does give some hope for the future. I’m as keen as anyone to see the end of Ponting, but I think the selectors would be wise not to break up the team quickly.