Cape Town – So that’s it … that great unticked box, now duly, dazzlingly ticked.
Do not underestimate for one second the significance of South Africa’s ultimately crushing, 3-1 Test series triumph over Australia - sealed on Tuesday in a crazy blur of cheap, primarily Vernon Philander-orchestrated scalps.
Just as importantly, how many hard-to-please, frankly ungenerous Proteas-watchers really feel that there was something “hollow” about the series victory, taking into account the unfortunately limelight-stealing sideshows over the last few weeks?
No, most South Africans will realise the team warrant basking quite genuinely and fulsomely in this success, pretty content in the knowledge that Faf du Plessis and his passion-driven company had placed their noses powerfully in front by the time the Aussie ball-tampering scandal exploded.
Indeed, is it any coincidence that the major flashpoint came at the very time when Australia were starting to show tangible signs of buckling to the increased pressure being cranked on them as the combat progressed … a sign of the near-irrational desperation that had taken hold in at least some corners of their dressing room?
If anything, Du Plessis’s men deserve an extra plaudit for sticking to their guns – very clinically, it turned out – after the crisis struck, to simply underline their rather clear-cut superiority and deep levels of desire.
Statistics from the series seemed to say everything: mass superiority in both batting (just for example, five centuries to none) and bowling, where three of the top four pace-department wicket-takers were South African and Keshav Maharaj also pipped Australia’s own, hugely more seasoned frontline spinner Nathan Lyon by one scalp (17 to 16).
So both Du Plessis – though his captaincy far eclipsed his own batting, until a very late return to best form – and head coach Ottis Gibson fully justify a significant place on the tapestry of South African cricket history.
Granted, the weight of the team effort by South Africa was admirable (though AB de Villiers especially rampant at the crease, more or less from start to finish of the series, and Morne Morkel an exquisitely-timed, swansong revelation) but they are the two who, inevitably, will most be feted for the landmark achievement given the gravitas and responsibility of their titles.
For this was completion, hallelujah, of the Proteas’ reasonably long-awaited “Grand Slam” in post-isolation Test cricket.
They had previously beaten every other Test-playing nation both home and away – at least once – since re-admission from isolation in 1992, but always with Australia the one, niggling vacancy on the chart … or more specifically, beating them on our soil.
Seven prior opportunities had been wasted against these fierce foes, stretching back to the 1993/94 three-match scrap between Kepler Wessels’ home nation and the tourists led by Allan Border, now 62 and a guest television commentator for SuperSport during the latest series.
Curiously in that period, the Proteas have beaten the Baggy Greens three times in their own backyard, only making the lone void that bit more inexplicable, and eagerly-awaited.
It said a lot about the mettle of the current SA side, too, that they could so quickly and decisively put behind them the relative humbling they received in the first Test at Kingsmead.
Every Proteas win thereafter only seemed to crank up a notch in levels of mastery, culminating in the almost fairy-tale, 492-run Bullring outcome.
The present SA side isn’t perfect, by any means: debate will still rage from time to time about the balance of their XI, given the absence of a true all-rounder, and a couple of spots in the middle order produced worrisomely low returns indeed (notably the area around five and six).
But this still ended up being about as convincing a Test summer statistically as their fans could have wished for.
Both early-season, weakling visitors Bangladesh and Zimbabwe were disposed of with near-maximum ruthlessness, and then the series against top-ranked India was clinched as early as the second Test, Virat Kohli’s charges only bouncing back in a dead-rubber when, as we well know, the mental and sometimes even selection dynamics are so different.
Australia? Well, even “icing on the cake” seems an understatement, considering that glaring, pre-series knowledge that 48 years had gone by since Ali Bacher’s apartheid-era legends of 1969/70 last beat them in South Africa.
If you wanted to be dreadfully nit-picky, you could submit that the Proteas have not yet beaten Pakistan in their temporary home of the United Arab Emirates (series in 2010/11 and 2013/14 were both drawn) but they have, more pertinently, done the business before in the more challenging Pakistani environment itself (1997/98 and 2007/08) so that would be a flimsy contention.
South Africa haven’t yet advanced back to No 1 on the ICC rankings, India still clinging to that status, but they are closing in.
And they are entitled to a top-of-the-world feeling in the Wanderers afterglow …
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