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Character: It’s like Toothpaste

It’s all over and once again we are wishing there were five Tests.  I guess that Harris for one would be glad there were only three.  Australia has won the series and he’s done for.  Once again, Australia and South Africa have played a hard-fought series.  Once again, South Africa has lost a home series to Australia 2-1.  Once again South Africa batted stoically in the fourth innings.  On this occasion it was not enough and Australia deservedly prevailed.

For me it was shades of Adelaide, Sydney and Cardiff all rolled into one.  Adelaide because of du Plessis’ recent heroics in 2012 where he did hold Australia out for a draw.  Cardiff because of the 2009 match where Australia were so close, yet so far away from forcing a win – it looked like it was going that way again.  And Sydney because of the MonkeyGate Test against India.  On that occasion, Australia left it until the second last over on that occasion when Michael Clarke took three wickets in five balls.

And MonkeyGate had more than that in common with Cape Town 2014: Acrimony and ill feeling by the bucket load. Perhaps that just comes with the territory where Australia and frustrating final day assignments are concerned.  More on that later.

This Test series has been totally fascinating.  It has been exciting and there has been great play from both sides.  It feels like it was closely fought.  After all, the final Test was a decider.  And yet each result was a landslide.  In all three matches, the team that batted first set the pace and led from the outset, from beginning to end.  The first innings leads were all around the two hundred mark.  The smallest winning margin was the second Test  – a whopping 231 runs.  It is worth remembering that South Africa won the toss in the first two Tests but gifted Australia first use of the pitch in the 1st Test.  Unfortunately, that may have been Graeme Smith’s most telling contribution to the series.  Sadly for him, he had no influence on it was his own batting.

Australia will have been glad to put some demons to rest.  They must have gone some way to forgetting the nightmare of their last effort at Newlands.  They have won an away series for the first time in over two years and against the best opposition available.  And while there are still weaknesses and testing times ahead, the team is doing a lot of things right.  They deserved to win and I’m glad they did but we saw some ugly behaviour on the final day.

Firstly, the lads seemed to take exception to Faf du Plessis, who, after the first innings, made some light-hearted remarks to the press about the Australian quick’s ability to get reverse swing so early.  He was obviously having a dig a Warner’s remarks after the 2nd Test and was probably lucky not to get some sort of disciplinary attention himself.  He walked a thin line especially given his personal history with zippers and ball tampering.  But the Australians appeared to be outraged.  Johnson was clearly picked up in the stump mic saying, “He’s using the rough side of his zipper there boys.  He’ll come out in the media and say it but won’t do anything to our faces”.  And he was given a very enthusiastic send-off by the entire team once has was finally dismissed.

And then there was a very heated altercation between Dale Steyn and Michael Clarke.  For those of you who didn’t see, let me set the scene.  It was getting pretty late in the day and Philander and Steyn were dug in well.  The Aussie’s would have been pretty tense, still needing two wickets.  Philander had already received a nasty blow on his right hand from a Pattinson beamer.  I don’t think anyone is saying that it was deliberate but it would not have been received too kindly.  Then  Australia finally dismissed Philander. Or so they thought.  A classic Johnson snorter caught him on the glove and a simple catch was taken at short leg.  The batsman was given out and chose to review.

On closer inspection, it became apparent that Philander had taken his hand from the bat – the hand that was wearing the glove that was struck – during the shot.  I’m not entirely sure that the hand had entirely left the bat before it was struck and I don’t know how anyone else could have been.  Nonetheless, the decision was overturned.  I don’t want to go into DRS (again) and I will say that I think the umpiring in this series has been excellent.  Keep in mind that the Aussies were watching the review on the big screen, from afar, so they would not have been too convinced either.

Naturally enough and understandably, they were very disappointed.  Perhaps memories of Kasprowicz at Edgbaston in 2005 rubbed salt into the wound.  The Australians, and especially Clarke were incensed.   And that is where Clarke overstepped the mark.  He lost control of himself.  Steyn said a few words and Clarke went off his brain.  To his credit, Clarke did unreservedly apologise at the press conference. I took some quotes from a Cricinfo article and I did watch myself on CA TV (dongles gives a rare, free plug to CA TV).

“Honestly, if anybody was out of line it was me and I apologise to the opposition player I was out of line to [Steyn].  A player who I have the utmost respect for, who tries to kill me every time bat, who batted exceptionally well, and I was out of line. If any player on either team, it was me who was out of line. Let’s just say he got me at a bad time.”

“And certainly as captain of your country you’ve got to be able to cop that on the chin. Something was said to one of my team mates. I seem to make this mistake a few times but I jumped in after him. It doesn’t matter what happened, what I said was something out of character and I apologise for that. I shouldn’t have said what I said.”

That’s a pretty good apology but I want to pick up on one small part of it: “what I said was something out of character”.  I find that a curious remark.  I have often heard, and I agree with the idea that what people say and do in the heat of the moment is the true reflection of their character.  When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste – put it under pressure – what is on the inside comes out:  toothpaste.  It is also interesting that Clarke touched on respect.  He respects Steyn and so he should.  He didn’t show respect to Steyn in the heat of the moment and has now apologised.  However, his team showed no respect for Faf du Plessis at any point and that is unattractive.

The Australians may have been unhappy with what du Plessis said but let’s face it – it was just off-field sparring and clearly referenced words already said by the Aussies (Warner) themselves.  And why would Johnson have been so offended by Faf not saying it to their faces when Warner had done exactly the same thing?  Any player on the opposition should be treated with respect and that aside, in his short Test career, Faf du Plessis has done enough to earn respect on the cricket field.

I don’t want to dwell on this because there were some Herculean performances during this Test.  On the Australian side Warner, Harris, Johnson and finally, Clarke stood out.  And the South Africans had Steyn, Morkel and AB de Villiers giving outstand performances.  It really was a series of brilliant performances from the top individuals in the game at the moment.  I think that where Australia won it was the team:  their team performed better.  The fielding was outstanding.  The hunger and drive were palpable.  To me it is sad, that victory on the final day was somewhat tarnished by some unfortunate behaviour on the final day.

And it is not a one-off.  We saw a very similar thing earlier in the summer.  Remember the first Ashes Test in Brisbane?  That heated altercation with Clarke telling Anderson to, “Face up and get ready to have your f***ing arm broken.”  James Anderson has earned more respect than that.  Some people applauded the skipper for being so tough.  I applaud toughness but it shouldn’t come from words.  It comes from action and let’s face it, there was quite enough action at that time.  Such words were unnecessary.  Once again, it was late in the day and Australia was trying to close the match out.  Australia had not tasted victory in a Test for nine matches.  England had only one wicket remaining and just before the exchange, Lyon had butchered a run out that would have finished the match.  Really, they shouldn’t have even still been on the field.  You can imagine the frustration levels.  And that is where the true character showed.

I don’t want to pick on Clarke.  He has done great things individually and in recent times, is becoming a good leader under the mentoring of Boof Lehmann.  If he wants to become a truly great leader, I think he needs to start always treating with respecting the men he is playing against on the cricket field, whether or not it has been earned in the Australians’ opinion.  There is a lot of talk about players being role models and I often wonder what does that mean?  What does it look like?  If we all treated others with respect, regardless of what we think of them, and whether or not we agree with them, the world would be a better place.  And that example can be given on the sports field.

I Am Going Now – Over My Dead Body

While David Warner played the innings of day one of the deciding 3rd Test at Newlands, it was Michael Clarke that stole the headlines.  He is 92 not out at stumps and while this certainly was not his most glorious innings, it was one of his most important and noteworthy.

On the one hand, David Warner removed both feet from his mouth for long enough to smash a rather imperious century.  And on the other, for a period between lunch and tea, Michael Clarke seemed determined to play just about every ball with anything but his bat.  Morne Morkel gave him what is called a good, old fashion going over.  How he did not get out, I have no idea.  But I suppose he wasn’t in any danger of being bowled, and as I said, the ball was rarely hitting his bat, which makes it hard to get caught.  But there was that one that smashed his fingers, ballooned in the air and narrowly eluded both bat pad and the stumps.  But you know what I mean.

Morne Morkel’s spell was even nastier than anything Johnson has dished out recently.  Clarke has not made it to 25 for 11 innings.  I have even heard some say that Clarke only makes runs when the going is easy.  Now that is galling but perhaps it’s fair to say that Clarke would not be seen in the same mould as the likes of Steve Waugh and Allan Border, two of the toughest, most determined bastards ever to strap on pads.

A lot has been said about Australia’s return to Newlands, the scene of the 2011 debacle.  But it should not be forgotten that Clarke played a magnificent innings in that very Test.  He was very young in his captaincy and he scored brilliant 151 in a total of 284.  After South Africa was rifled out for 96, Australia should have won, but we all would know about the ensuing carnage and calamitous defeat.  I believe that innings kick started Clarke’s incredible run of form that lasted for almost two years.

Day one at Newlands was a different Michael Clarke.  He looked incredibly awkward against the short ball.  Morkel bowled several overs to him and he looked all at sea against quick, sharply rising deliveries.  He never took a backward step but he did flinch, repeatedly took his eye of the ball and received several sickening blows.  One of the first hit him on an unprotected forearm.  I could just imagine James Anderson sitting in his lounge room muttering to himself, “Face up and get ready to have your f***ing arm broken”.

When Warner faced Morkel, it looked a different ball game.  Mind you he didn’t stay there for long.  He usually worked a single pretty easily.  Not that I’m trying to say he wanted to get off strike.  He gave one of the bouncers he received a fearful hook.  I will admit that his eyes were, in fact, closed but he kept the ball down and dissected the outfielders.

Shortly after the forearm ball, Clarke took one on the glove and then took a nasty blow to his head.  Once again, he turned away, the ball found its way under the helmet and Clarke staggered, almost going down for the count.  I have not seen a batsman cop such a hiding since Jeff Thompson battered Sri Lankan Sunil Wettimuny in the 1975 World Cup.  I would not have been surprised if Clarke had said to the physio, “I am going now.”  But he didn’t.

Clarke showed incredible courage and that will inspire his team every bit as much as double and triple centuries.  And following these trials came some runs.  He passed 25.  He passed 50.  Play on day two has just started and he needs just eight runs for what would be a heroic century.