Cape Town – The toughest game of cricket he ever played in.
That is how former Proteas all-rounder Justin Kemp, a crucial match-rescuer, remembers what curiously turned out to be just his fourth and final Test match for South Africa, against Australia at the WACA in 2005/06.
But it is some admission nevertheless, coming from a now-retired cricketer who was on the first-class scene for almost 20 years and seemed to be pigeon-holed more as a limited-overs player by his country – he played 85 one-day internationals with a few bruising “finishing” exploits at the crease coming particularly to mind.
Still, Kemp’s rather fleeting Test career was memorable for his swansong appearance in the format being a pretty heroic one, in tandem with the defiance-leading Jacques Rudolph at the famous Perth venue.
The pair were hugely responsible for South Africa salvaging a very respectable draw in the team’s first ever Test exposure to the WACA, even if the Aussies would eventually claim the three-Test series spoils by a 2-0 margin.
The Proteas have subsequently earned priceless, successive victories at the WACA, helping to power them to the series triumphs Down Under of 2008/09 and 2012/13.
Yet had it not been for the stone-walling, day-five exploits of Rudolph and Kemp around a decade ago, South Africa would not have the mental luxury of entering the first Test of the imminent latest series – hostilities begin at 04:30 SA time on Thursday – knowing that their hosts have failed to knock them over to date at the traditionally pace-friendly WACA.
At the time, the Aussies still contained the nucleus of their legendary personnel who had ensured several years of notable global supremacy for them in the Test arena.
It seemed, too, that they were going to strike another sickening blow to their old southern hemisphere foes when Ricky Ponting set the Proteas a daunting 491 for victory, well into the fourth day of the first Test.
As Graeme Smith’s charges receded to 138 for four on the final morning, and clearly with the win target completely out of any viable thought, an Aussie victory seemed at least 75 percent likely.
But that was the cue for Kemp, more renowned for his attacking instincts, to take guard and join the already well-embedded Rudolph in a key 112-run vigil for the fifth wicket that would span some 52 nail-biting overs.
Kemp ended up notching his lone half-century (55) for the Proteas in Tests, but the 166 balls he used up – not to mention funereal strike rate for him of 33 – proved invaluable in the visitors ending up on 287 for five for the honourable stalemate; Rudolph remained not out on 102, probably his grittiest of six tons for South Africa.
“It was definitely the hardest game of cricket I ever played,” Kemp told Sport24.
“That Aussie side was still pretty much at the peak, and with the likes of Ponting, Warne, McGrath, Lee and others it was a nervous challenge (fighting the rearguard action) to say the least.
“But the pitch was awesome – a proper WACA wicket – and the crowd hostile as well … in a nutshell, it was very daunting.
“Helping save the Test was hugely rewarding for me, especially as it became the last Test I ever played.”
Kemp, 39, is notably upbeat about the chances of Faf du Plessis and company emulating the wins achieved in Australia in the last two series when Graeme Smith was at the helm.
“I don’t think South Africa have ever had a better chance, actually, of beating the Aussies on their home terrain – if our bowlers stay fit, I believe we will be too strong for them.
“Our batting is currently very stable and strong, and unless the Australians have all of their own most senior bowlers available we should do the business.”
Should the Proteas opt to field a spinner instead of a fourth paceman at the WACA, Kemp says he would be “tempted to play (Tabraiz) Shamsi” rather than the apparent favourite for the berth, Keshav Maharaj.
“It just depends on the pitch … I am not sure they will leave it too dry.
“But we have an exciting series ahead.”
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