THEY got away with a technical decision in Brisbane. Floored in Adelaide, they somehow managed to survive an eight-count. And in Perth, they endured body blows that certainly hurt some more.
But then, suddenly and spectacularly, after going 10 rounds mostly on the retreat, the Proteas lifted themselves off the canvas and rose like the true champions they are by striking back with some crushing blows of their own that has left indelible damage on Australia.
It took 11 days for South Africa to show why they were the No 1 team in the world. It was the day they stopped being afraid. Not afraid of Australia, but afraid of how good they really are. The now-retired Ricky Ponting alluded to it in his final media briefing when he praised the Proteas for not being “too scared” to impose themselves.
“That was them trying to impose themselves on the series and they did it better than I have seen any team take a game away from the opposition before,” Ponting said.
“A lot of the other teams we have played against over the years that have been in a position like that have been too scared to do that and push the game forward. What they did the other day was a sign that they had total belief in what they were doing. They put us under more pressure than I think we have been under for a long time, so they thoroughly deserved to win this series.”
Coming from an Australian, and particularly Ponting, who for so long was the epitome of a hard-nosed Aussie, it certainly holds the highest kudos.
Prior to this Test series, I wrote that the time was ripe for Graeme Smith and his troops to slash scars into the young Australian players’ psyche that the likes of Matthew Hayden, Steve Waugh, Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath had done to the Proteas in previous decades.
Smith alluded to it too in his post-match press conference: “There are many people in our set-up who have taking a beating on tours of Australia.”
And that’s why the Proteas captain was so elated to pronounce that December 1, 2012 “has got to go down as one of the highlights of South African cricket”.
For he knows that the likes of Ed Cowan, David Warner, John Hastings, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon will not easily forget the humiliation and pain they endured in being knocked over for just 163 due to some venomous fast bowling from Dale Steyn.
The fact that it was Steyn that led the riposte is only fitting. While Nelson Mandela is the new face on South Africa’s banknotes, the “Phalaborwa Express” is the new face of South African cricket.
It’s no longer the almost apologetic Shaun Pollock or the humble Makhaya Ntini (as great fast bowlers as they were in their own right), but it’s the brash, almost angry, celebrations of Steyn that best illustrates this team’s on-field confidence. Yet, he remained big enough of a man to run the length of the field to doff his cap to Ponting, upon the Australian’s retirement.
The incredible Smith-Hashim Amla partnership that followed in the final session did not only change the course of the match and series, but also how South African cricket will be viewed in future. For so long the Proteas were respected. Now they will be feared.
The only question that remains is for how long can South Africa remain at the pinnacle of Test cricket? Are they able to sustain this success, especially away from home where they have now not lost a Test series for six years?
The simplified answer lies in the creaking bones and aching muscles of Jacques Kallis. He remains the epicentre of the Proteas Test team. His absence has a debilitating effect on the balance of the side. He cannot go on forever, or at least not in both roles for much longer. This needs to be managed accordingly.
There are various options. AB de Villiers could continue in his dual wicket-keeper/batsman role (and that looks certain for the foreseeable future after his century at the Waca) to free up a spot for an extra batsman or bowler. The injured JP Duminy may settle into the No 4 position or South Africa could decide to stick with Robin Peterson in the spinning role to lengthen their batting.
Either way, the Proteas have a golden opportunity to achieve and sustain global domination.