It was easy to conclude, as I myself did, that Australia’s sensational performances in their home summer owed as much to the complete collapse in form and confidence of England, as it owed to the resurgence of Australia under the guidance of Darren Lehmann and Michael Clarke. Surely a trip to South Africa, the no1 ranked Test side, would set the records straight.
And set the records straight it did. Australia’s fine form continued and they can now be considered as the best side in the world. The rankings will take time to adjust, owing to South Africa’s recent dominance and Australia’s recent woes, but any side that can waltz into South Africa’s manor and give them a shoeing deserves the status that goes with such antics.
Mitchell Johnson had spent the Ashes terrorising feeble English tail end batsmen. He spent most of February and March terrorising all South African batsman, claiming 22 wickets at 17.36. When Hashim Amla is rattled – literally – you know you are watching a pretty special bowler in pretty special form. That’s what happened at Centurion. Johnson also ended the series for Ryan McClaren, thwacking him so hard on the side of the head as to cause a concussion.
Australia also continued their aggressive antics from the Ashes. They are not just playing their way up the rankings, they are kicking and screaming their way up there. A lot of Clarke’s antics leave a lot to be desired on the field and how much further he can push the boundaries of acceptability before the authorities intervene is another matter. From threatening broken limbs during the Ashes, he was involved in heated exchanges with the umpires during the last Test here in Cape Town as his side employed questionable tactics to disturb the surface of the wicket and, as that dramatic Test reached its cacophonous finale, had to be physically dragged away from an argument with Dale Steyn.
Such scenes are unsavoury, but they add another dimension to this Australia, for too long in recent years betraying its aggressive roots by succumbing to meek defeats with average players.
Dave Warner is now doing his punching on the pitch, too, usually through the offside. His return of 543 runs at 90.50 included three centuries and came at a rollicking strike rate of 86.74. He was put down several times during the series, but if Warner hangs around for an hour or two, the opposition are in big trouble.
Australia’s rise will only be checked by personnel issues. Ryan Harris, whose two wickets in three balls, with the sun setting behind Table Mountain, settled the series in Australia’s favour and cast a shadow over South Africa’s future. It also made Australia the first team to win a series away from home since 2012. Harris now has to undergo knee surgery and Cape Town could prove to have been his final farewell.
Peter Siddle, too, was dropped for the last Test owing to a drop in pace. The backup is talented, if fragile. Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson, Jackson Bird, Pat Cummins; all have had injury problems. Were it not for those injury problems, however, Johnson would not have featured in the Ashes… Every cloud.
Whilst Australia rise, South Africa sink. Like a high speed car in a Hollywood movie, nuts and bolts are flying off the chassis of this vehicle and something of a breakdown looks inevitable. Gary Kirsten is no longer head coach, Jacques Kallis has left an imbalance with bat and ball and now Graeme Smith, 11 years the skipper, has departed.
South Africa without Smith will be like Manchester United without Alex Ferguson. They also do not have a spinner worthy of inclusion and the bowling of JP Duminy and Dean Elgar is relied upon too much in this regard. This will cause problems going forward.
There is still a lot of class in the ranks. AB de Villiers, Amla, Faf du Plesis, Steyn, Morne Morkel; one injury in the bowling department, however, and things do not look so rosy.
This series had an air of being an era-definer. South Africa’s era at the top looks doomed, whilst Australia are ascending (not so) gracefully back to the top. The three Tests were punctuated with brilliant performances, but Australia were simply the better side. They put down less catches, they never collapsed and their bowlers never gave up. If there is one side that you do not want to face right now, it is Australia.
By Miles Reucroft