Cape Town - Where will it end?
Well, Tuesday at the Wanderers would be considered very acceptable - and then some - by South African cricket fans.
If it’s gone right to the close of play in the fourth and final Test then, the Proteas will presumably have done enough to earn a draw … all Faf du Plessis and company need to carve a glorious new niche for themselves in the record books, as they will have preserved a 2-1 lead to the conclusion of this controversy-stained bilateral combat and ended some prolonged agony.
Naturally a South African victory over a hastily-reshuffled Aussie line-up at some point in the next five days (from Friday, 10:00) at the Bullring would be the 3-1 cherry on top, and the most fitting way to end a 48-year barren spell in home series triumphs over these foes.
After Ali Bacher’s iconic side of 1969/70, who clean-swept the Australians 4-0, a couple of generations of notably high-calibre South African cricketers – both from the former SACU and non-racial folds - had no further opportunities to tackle the Aussies or anyone else in official Test matches, which goes some way to explaining the lengthy period.
But once South Africa returned in a post-apartheid landscape, they have subsequently come up short in as many as seven home series against the Baggy Greens, including six reverses.
Extraordinarily, they have won their last three in a row in Australia itself, which only makes the bogey on more familiar turf that bit more irksome and perplexing.
Considering the volcanic, Aussie-staining events of the last few days, and the Proteas’ strengthening hold on the series anyway, they may never have a better chance to put the demon to bed … though they have come fairly close on a few prior occasions.
Here is a brief recollection of that swollen, seven-series failure in SA (a little worryingly including a recent sequence of five Australians victories in a row at Wanderers) to beat these great rivals:
1993/94: SA 1 Australia 1 (3 Tests)
South Africa had returned from more than two decades of isolation surprisingly, immediately competitive – helped by having an Oz-hardened Kepler Wessels as their skipper against Allan Border’s equally gnarly side.
The teams had played out an identical score-line in Australia a bit earlier, and this was just as ding-dong: SA won by a clear-cut 197 runs at Wanderers and the Aussies bounced back for a nine-wicket win at Newlands.
Sadly the decisive contest in Durban ended in a fairly tame draw, SA batting only once (an “insurance” first-knock total of 422) but the Aussies doing a decent rear-guard job at the crease to avoid any prospect of defeat.
1996/97: SA 1 Australia 2 (3 Tests)
The Aussies clubbed SA by an innings and 196 runs at the Wanderers, a match remembered for the record 385-run partnership between Greg Blewett (214) and Steve Waugh (160).
South Africa were much better in a PE thriller … but the series was also, agonisingly decided there as Mark Waugh’s gutsy second-knock century saw the visitors chase down (just) the biggest score of the match (the target was 271 and they got to it eight down).
With Allan Donald and Brett Schultz united on the strike front for the first time in the series at Centurion, the brutal pair grabbed 14 wickets between them in the dead-rubber consolation win by eight wickets.
2001/02: SA 1 Australia 2 (3 Tests)
Steve Waugh’s side were again in ruthless Bullring form, first up: a pulverising, record win by an innings and 360 runs with Adam Gilchrist’s pyrotechnic, almost run-a-ball double-century the highlight.
Again, too, SA were more adhesive in game two (Newlands) and must have felt in the pound seats at Oz were tasked with getting a stiff, venue-landmark 331 to win; yet they reached the requirement, six down, and with Ricky Ponting 100 not out. Series dusted!
In a repeat of 1996/97, SA rose admirably enough to the dead rubber at Kingsmead.
2005/06: SA 0 Australia 3 (3 Tests)
This was approaching the end of a really great era in Aussie Test sides … but they still had more than enough in the tank to bulldoze the Proteas all summer (it had been 2-0 in a three-Test series Down Under before the teams travelled here).
The screws were turned further in SA with a clean sweep by Ponting’s charges, starting in Cape Town where Stuart Clark revelled in the seaming conditions for a match haul of 9/89, and onward to Durban where the series was decided early.
Jacques Kallis stepped in as emergency SA captain for the dead rubber at Wanderers, a tighter contest surrendered by two wickets.
2008/09: SA 1 Australia 2 (3 Tests)
This was a desperately disappointing outcome for Proteas enthusiasts, considering how Graeme Smith’s heroes had just earned a fabulous maiden series triumph in Oz itself.
But there was a collective hangover in the ranks, and the miffed Aussies cashed in mercilessly, powering to a 162-run win in Johannesburg and by 175 in Durban.
Once SA revived themselves, too late, they slaughtered Michael Clarke’s charges by an innings in the Newlands dead-rubber, a match where AB de Villiers (163) and Ashwell Prince – 150 as temporary, reluctant opener – excelled.
2011/12: SA 1 Australia 1 (2 Tests)
Controversially limited to one of those unpopular (at least when top powers meet) two-Test series, this one duly ended all square with people baying for the absent third clash.
SA charged into a Newlands lead (win by eight wickets) in that remarkable game where the tourists were 21 for nine and then 47 all out in their second innings, and debutant Vernon Philander on fire (3/63 and 5/15).
But the nervy second Test - this time an Aussie debutant, teenage paceman Pat Cummins, excelled with a second-innings 6/79 - was snatched in a thrilling finish by Clarke’s Baggy Greens.
Chasing just over 300 for victory, a gritty team effort saw them past the Bullring post at 310/8.
2013/14: SA 1 Australia 2 (3 Tests)
The Aussies roared from the blocks at Centurion, where the sort of up-and-down pitch that played into thunderbolt Mitchell Johnson’s hands (he had superlative match figures of 12/127) sealed SA’s fate.
There was a forceful Proteas bounce-back at St George’s Park, though, the hosts prevailing by 231 runs with some quality reverse swing bowling in vital bursts from the likes of Dale Steyn and Philander.
What turned out to be “Biff” Smith’s retirement-game decider at Newlands, however, went pear-shaped for the home cause as they were thumped by 245 runs.
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