When cricket took a back seat

The Australia-South Africa series, unfortunately, will always be remembered for the infamous scandal. Few will probably recall the wondrous on-field deeds, particularly South Africa’s gritty effort to create history.

Comprehensive victory: Players of the South African team celebrate with the trophy after defeating Australia in the final Test at the Wanderers, Johannesburg. The win enabled South Africa complete a 3-1 series triumph.   -  AP

It was supposed to be cricket’s best series of 2018. There was a swirl of intrigue and anticipation ahead of fierce rivals South Africa and Australia clashing in the blockbuster four-Test series. After a triumphant Ashes, Australia arrived in South Africa hoping to continue the goodwill and start a golden era. The in-form Proteas loomed as a tough obstacle and were coming off a home victory over India.

Armed with a blue-chip attack, a rising Australia felt the strongest it had been since the halcyon McGrath-Warne era. Meanwhile, the underdog, South Africa, was aiming to snap a long drought against Australia on home soil — it had not won a Test series since readmission.

The proud nations had a storied history with battles marked by fiery and hard-fought contests. It has arguably been cricket’s most competitive rivalry over a long period of time, one that almost always spits out riveting contests.

Dramatic ebb and flow

And true to all of that, the series delivered for two-and-a-half memorable Tests that ebbed and flowed dramatically. The memorable on-field action was slightly overshadowed by controversies between two bitter adversaries, but all could be forgiven as it appeared a series for the ages inevitably loomed.

The series started as a tight affair with Australia’s wobbly batting order struggling against a rampant South African attack, but all-rounder Mitchell Marsh played arguably his best Test innings during a well-compiled 96 to guide the tourists to 340.

Astoundingly, Marsh’s knock would be Australia’s highest individual score of the series.

Australia’s score seemed nothing special, but it proved formidable as spearhead Mitchell Starc ripped apart South Africa with dazzling reverse swing — words that would become taboo — in both innings, as the visiting team wrapped up a decisive victory. Some thought a red-hot Australia, which had won 6 of 7 Tests, was set for a whitewash. Such was its dominance in Durban.

Markram steals the show

Precocious talent: Though South Africa lost the first Test, its opener Aiden Markram sizzled with a blistering second innings century. He finished the series as a star performer for South Africa.   -  Getty Images

  South Africa was humbled, but opener Aiden Markram showcased his precocious talent with a blistering second innings century to set the scene for a breakout series, where he would finish as the star performer.

Australia appeared headed for a stranglehold of the series when it started the second Test 98-0 before Kagiso Rabada flipped the script with a devastating burst to engineer a South African fightback. The host’s comeback was complete when AB de Villiers destroyed Australia with a brilliant unbeaten century to ensure South Africa gained a handy lead. Back to his best, de Villiers showcased why he is perhaps the world’s most intoxicating batsman in a knock he later rated as one of his very best. He destroyed Australia’s frontline attack — which had been unbeaten previously when playing together — with an array of trademark inventive stokes.

The irrepressible Rabada destroyed Australia in the second innings with fire and brimstone to finish with an 11-wicket haul and spearhead South Africa’s eventual six-wicket victory as the series was delicately poised at one Test apiece.

There was plenty of importance surrounding the crucial third Test in Cape Town with both teams aiming to gain a major edge in the series. Gritty opener Dean Elgar gave South Africa the early initiative with a dogged unbeaten century to carry his bat for the third time, as the Proteas made 311. Once again, Australia’s batsmen struggled and could only muster 255, but the series was on a knife’s edge in a riveting see-sawing battle.

Even though Pat Cummins — who is emerging as Australia’s very best fast bowler — was doing his utmost to get Australia back into the contest, Markram and de Villiers combined as the Test seemingly was heading South Africa’s way.

Of course, the series shockingly turned in an instant when young Australian opener Cameron Bancroft was caught red-handed with sandpaper on the third day of the third Test, and the nefarious plot hatched by vice-captain David Warner eventually was revealed.

Caught red-handed: Umpires Richard Illingworth (left) and Nigel Llong question Cameron Bancroft during the third Test between South Africa and Australia at Newlands, Cape Town. Bancroft was caught with a sandpaper which he used to scuff the ball. This was part of the nefarious plot hatched by vice-captain David Warner, and it led to the suspension of the two Aussies along with skipper Steve Smith. The contest between the two teams ended then and there.   -  AFP

 

Series undone by ball tampering

Effectively, that was the end of what had been a riveting series. It was over once a sheepish Bancroft and captain Steve Smith admitted guilt in an extraordinary press conference, much to the utter shock of the cricket world.

Australian cricket had suddenly been engulfed by flames and the cricket had become an afterthought. What a pity!

The series then descended into farce and ensured the rest of it was one-sided with few really caring what was transpiring on-field.

Aussies deflated

By the start of Day Four, as the furore had already whipped everyone Down Under into a frenzy, Smith and Warner had been stood down from their leadership roles. Almost inevitably, a deflated Australia crumbled meekly late on Day 4 to be all out for a paltry 107, with all 10 wickets falling in the final session.

Fire and brimstone: Fast bowler Kagiso Rabada destroyed Australia in the second innings of the second Test in Port Elizabeth to finish with a 11-wicket haul and pave the way for South Africa’s six-wicket victory.   -  Getty Images

But it hardly mattered anymore. The game had become nonsensical and was played amid sombre spirits by the Australians. It was jarring to see them play so lifelessly with wickets barely even celebrated. Everyone knew, this was the end of Smith’s reign. He hadn’t received his punishment just yet, but the backlash had been so strong that everyone knew Smith’s captaincy was over. There were suggestions that Australia should forfeit the final Test and return home collectively in disgrace, but that did not ensue. Only the disgraced trio returned home amid astounding scenes, with Smith walking through the airport in Johannesburg surrounded by security as if he was an international drug smuggler.

It forced selectors to fly over openers Matthew Renshaw and Joe Burns straight after they had been part of Queensland’s Sheffield Shield victory. The lead-up to the fourth Test was a circus with the drama continually unfolding around the clock marked by coach Darren Lehmann’s tearful resignation.

It meant the final Test was basically irrelevant and destined to be a major anti-climax. Australia had a new captain, new openers and its coach was bowing out. Added to that, an injured Starc was ruled out and replaced by debutant Chadd Sayers.

Through an unwavering Cummins — clearly Australia’s best performer in the series — the embattled tourists fought hard on the first day to restrict South Africa’s charge before being overwhelmed and crushed in one of their worst losses ever.

Losing by a mile

Australia had a snapshot of what life will be like without Smith and Warner, who — along with Bancroft — accepted their lengthy suspensions. In the absence of their disgraced former leaders, Australia predictably fell apart to record the largest Test defeat by runs in more than 80 years.

Australia’s revamped batting collapsed in both innings and things are going to be considerably more difficult without Smith and Warner, who carried this line-up for so long.

Amid the darkness, there was a new era emerging under new captain Tim Paine. Australia was sedate and notably bereft of the bravado that ultimately brought about the downfall of Smith. Australia played in a dignified manner in the first steps towards redemption although the road ahead looks murky.

Unfortunately, this series will always be remembered for the infamous scandal. Few will probably recall the wondrous on-field deeds, particularly South Africa’s gritty effort to create history. That’s just too bad as the teams are not scheduled to meet for at least two-and-a-half years.

This signalled the end of an era with a number of South Africans having most likely played their final series against Australia. Morne Morkel has now retired from Test cricket, while de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander and captain Faf du Plessis — who has a knack of getting under the skin of the Australians — could be farewelling this great rivalry.

It is a series that will never be forgotten — for all the wrong reasons.