It was fun… but ‘two' little

The recently-concluded Test series in South Africa had all the trappings of a blockbuster. The context, setting, and man-to-man parity amplified the buzz surrounding it. For the marketing machinery, the mini-battles drawn up ahead of the series provided adequate scope to push the ‘product'. By Arun Venugopal.

Brevity can, at times, lend a sense of lingering incompleteness to those who soak in with relish the finer things in life. A passionate kiss collapsing in its zenith can cause as much grief as a regal feast sans desserts.

A two-Test series can be just as soul-destroying especially when the crème de la crème of cricket's leviathans — South Africa and Australia — are locked in combat. Their previous engagements in 2008-09 were scraps of the most splendiferous variety: either side managed to win the ‘away' series while losing on its stomping ground.

The recently-concluded Test series in South Africa had all the trappings of a blockbuster. The context, setting, and man-to-man parity amplified the buzz surrounding it. For the marketing machinery, the mini-battles drawn up ahead of the series provided adequate scope to push the ‘product'.

But then, with the contest being as delicious as it was — the presence of Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting, Dale Steyn, Shane Watson, AB de Villiers, Michael Hussey, and Graeme Smith enhanced the offering — there was never any need for hard-sell.

Surprise packages generally evoke an instant urge to unravel them. And, when such gift-boxes reveal Pat Cummins and Vernon Philander, cricket aficionados can't ask for more. Cummins, all of 18 summers and with an apprenticeship of only three first-class matches, earned his baggy green at Johannesburg as Australia's second youngest Test cricketer after Ian Craig.

Philander, on the other hand, made his debut a game earlier in the first Test at Cape Town. In a match that swung violently between madness and awe-inspiring brilliance, the 26-year-old grabbed five wickets in the second innings to set the tone for South Africa's victory. There were quite a few other heroes in the match. Australian captain Michael Clarke carved out a 151 of the highest pedigree in the first innings, countering a rampaging Proteas attack. Watson then enjoyed one of his best bowling spells as he teamed up with Ryan Harris to rip open South Africa for 96.

When you thought the game had decidedly swung in Australia's favour, another twist presented itself. The troika of Philander, Steyn, and Morne Morkel blew up the visitor for 47 which meant South Africa had to chase 236 in the fourth innings. While the scales were tipped in favour of the team from down under, the South African batting elite took matters in its hands.

Skipper Smith and Hashim Amla made assured tons as the home side, scoring at more than 4.5 runs per over, cruised home with eight wickets in hand. The ceaseless power-shifts, in a match that lasted only three days, resulted in a gallimaufry of emotions. “I thought I'd missed a whole day of my life,” said former Australian captain Mark Taylor after missing the action on day-two.

It was probably the most defining for 23 wickets fell on the day — the highest in over 100 years. Australia was on 21 for nine at one stage before its last pair more than doubled the score. That, however, didn't save the team from the ignominy of registering its lowest total since 1902. Statisticians went berserk as the match, besides dishing out spine-tingling action, offered sufficient number-crunching opportunities. Come Johannesburg, we realised that this joust was only an appetiser.

At the Wanderers, South Africa began in authoritative fashion but slid remarkably from 240 for four to 266 all out. After Kallis, De Villiers, and Ashwell Prince had notched up fifties, the lower order perished in alarming fashion. For Australia, a mammoth 174-run opening partnership between Watson and Phil Hughes raised hopes of a sizeable first innings-lead. But an inspired spell from Steyn restricted the lead to a mere 30 runs. In the second innings, Amla and de Villiers collaborated once again and the African side looked well within reach of setting a 400-plus target.

That was when Cummins (six for 79) took his place under the arc-lights, sending down scorchers with the regularity of monsoon rain. His dismissal of Kallis indicated a clever mind at work: a barrage of short stuff was followed by a deceptively late out-swinger.

Australia was asked to chase 310 — the highest ever on the ground.

Two quick wickets and Ponting found himself in the middle along with the youngster, Usman Khawaja. Amid speculation that the game would be his last, Ponting constructed the innings brick-by-brick before falling on 62.

Then an under-performing Brad Haddin, along with Mike Hussey and Johnson, managed to weather a sustained assault from South Africa's seamers. Australia eventually sneaked home by two wickets.

For South Africa, another opportunity to record its first series win against Australia at home since re-admission went abegging.

The stalemate may seem to be a fair result considering the topsy-turvy nature of the series but a decider would have been a fair examination.

Smith agreed. “I said that before the series, I think it's disappointing. When you have top teams playing each other it's always exciting, it's always competitive and it's good for Test cricket. We would have loved to have had more. In the future that's certainly something that the administrators can look at."

Scheduling is one of the areas that need attention. The two T20s and three ODIs, which preceded the Tests, seemed to go on for eternity with yawning gaps between each match. In the end, the Test series was the perfect film robbed off a logical climax.

THE SCORES

First Test at Cape Town: South Africa won by 8 wickets.

Australia 284 (S. Marsh 44, M. Clarke 151, D. Steyn 4 for 55, V. Philander 3 for 63, M. Morkel 3 for 82) & 47 (V. Philander 5 for 15, M. Morkel 3 for 9) lost to South Africa 96 (G. Smith 37, S. Watson 5 for 17, R. Harris 4 for 33) and 236 for two (G. Smith 101 n.o., H. Amla 112 n.o.).

Second Test at Johannesburg: Australia won by 2 wickets.

South Africa 266 (J. Rudolph 30, J. Kallis 54, de Villiers 64, A. Prince 50, P. Siddle 3 for 69) and 339 (G. Smith 36, H. Amla 105, AB de Villiers 73, D. Steyn 41, P. Cummins 6 for 79) lost to Australia 296 (S. Watson 88, P. Hughes 88, M. Johnson 38 n.o., D. Steyn 4 for 64, I. Tahir 3 for 55) & 310 for 8 (U. Khawaja 65, R. Ponting 62, M. Hussey 39, B. Haddin 55, M. Johnson 40 n.o., V. Philander 5 for 70).