Post the Ashes-Series, Australia sent the miserable England cricket team home empty-handed. Then they packed their bags and went for the African safari. They have since been busy and already successfully recorded a test-series win against South Africa. For the last time yesterday, the Proteas played under the stewardship of arguably the modern era’s most successful cricket captain, the great Graeme Smith. It is remarkable that Smith played as the captain of his team in 109 out of 117 career test matches. His last appearance was marred by a personal heartache, as his 1-year old daughter had to undergo surgery on Tuesday for serious burns. However, Smith didn’t allow that to interfere with his duties. With the series level before the start of the third test, it would have been fitting if his South Africans team-mates had checked the Australians and drawn the game for their captain. Well, that was not to be.
The three-test series threw up nearly similar outcomes at every outing. Australia’s first test victory by 281 runs at Centurion on February 15, 2014 was effectively nullified by South Africans at the Port Elizabeth’s second test, when the Australians were handed a 231 defeat on February 23. The decider, which concluded yesterday at Cape Town, went to the wire in the end with Australia emerging victorious by 245 runs.
In the series-opener at Centurion Park, Australians batted first and posted 397, helped by centuries from Shaun Marsh and Steven Smith. When the South Africans came on to bat, they were up against Australia’s Ashes Series hero Mitchell Johnson, who carried on from where he had left back home. South Africans have had a great test match record in recent time, losing just 1out of their last 19 test matches. But, of late, they had not seen much of Mitchell Johnson. In the first innings, they found it difficult to negotiate Johnson, who ran through the batting with a haul of 7/68. Batting second, the Australians quickly added another 290 to their first innings lead of 191 to set a 482-run victory target for the hosts. But the dreaded Johnson was right back in the fourth innings, quickly removing Alviro Petersen and Graeme Smith to make it 12/2 in the 4th over. There was some semblance of resistance from Amla, du Plessis and Duminy with only de Villiers displaying confidence and ease. However, the target was too big and the South African second innings folded at 200, with Johnson taking another 5 wickets. With a match tally of 12, Johnson was declared the man-of-the match award for the fourth time in his last six tests.
At Port Elizabeth’s second test, the Johnson magic didn’t work as South Africa, batting first, piled up 423, with centuries from AB de Villiers and JP Duminy. In what looked like the reversal of the first test, South Africa dictated terms in the Australian first innings, as the visitors were bowled out in 57 overs for just 246 runs. Only David Warner, 70 and Steve Smith, 49 were able to stand up to South African bowlers. In the second innings, South Africa scored a fast-paced 270 runs and declared the innings, leaving Australia with a 448-run victory target. The Aussies made a blistering start with Rogers scoring a century and Warner making 66 in the 126-run first-wicket stand. This was just about the only batting that could come from the Australians, because in a terrific turn of events, all 10 Australian wickets fell for the addition of only 90 runs. If it was Johnson for Australia in first test, it was Dale Styen for South Africa in the second. Styen produced an amazing spell of reverse swing and led the South Africans to a 231-run win on fourth day. In the evening session alone, Australia lost 9 out of their 10 wickets.
The final test at Cape Town was more like the first test with one major exception. It was Australia’s batsmen who set the tone in the decider, as against Mitchell Johnson’s bowling at Centurion. David warner scored centuries in each innings of the test and while he was supported by Michael Clarke in the first innings, he had an equal measure of help from Rogers, Doolan, Watson and Steven Smith. The victory target for the hosts was an unachievable 511 runs. But South Africa still had a chance to force a draw, because the Proteas tail-enders frustrated Australian bowlers as lay neared the end of day 4 with meteorological department forecasting rain on the fifth day. Thus, Australia’s chances of series win rested on the removal of Vernon Philander and the dogged Dale Styen, who did not show any signs of getting out after 75 minutes at the crease, in which he faced 44 balls for just one run. When only 5 overs were left on day 4, Clarke tossed the ball to the 34-year old Ryan Harris. As luck would it, Harris claimed Dale Styen with the first-ball Yorker and two balls later, he knocked Morne Morkel’s off stump to give Australia a 245 run victory. It was a great show from Australians in the closing stages of the fourth day, fructifying in a 2-1 series victory.