Cape Town - Newlands has been an object of splendour this week. The beauty of this grand old ground has shined brightly. From the smell of the freshly-cut grass to the cloudless sky showing off Table Mountain in the background, it is hard to imagine that something this striking will transform into a battleground for two fierce rivals to fight each other from Saturday.
There is no comeback once Graeme Smith and Michael Clarke walk down the stairs and out into the middle to spin that coin on Saturday morning. After a Mitchell Johnson-inspired Australia humbled the Proteas at Centurion, Smith could still gather his troops and hit back in Port Elizabeth. Likewise Clarke had the same opportunity with his battle-scarred Aussies this week in Cape Town after an angry Dale Steyn led South Africa’s riposte at St George’s Park.
Now though there are no second chances. It is a winner-takes-all final Test that will be an examination of nerve as much as their skill. In this Test series both teams have been man-man, pound-pound and probably sledge-sledge equal to each other. Both teams have talked the talk, probably more so Australia with David Warner shouting his mouth about ball-tampering, igniting even criticism from his own teammates. But now the time has come to walk the walk.
And it will help the Proteas that they are at a ground where they traditionally have happy memories – albeit mostly against opposition other than Australia. But like he says, “I didn’t play 30 years ago”, although Steyn has never actually lost a Test here in his adopted home town. Neither have any of his teammates either, bar the captain Smith and his deputy AB de Villiers.
“Newlands, it’s an amazing place to play at. It’s always got good weather and good crowds. It’s just a great place to play cricket. And then our record here for the past 10 years or something like that, we have done extremely well. It is something we want to keep intact. We know how to play here,” Steyn said on Thursday.
“A lot of the Cape Cobras play in this national side. We had always had good information coming from past coaches like Gary (Kirsten), players like Jacques (Kallis) and Graeme and Vernon (Philander), who is the King of Newlands. So, when you have good information like that, it helps your preparation.”
After being laid low by a “gastro bug” during the Centurion Test that saw Steyn’s pace dip in that opening encounter, he was back to his venomous best at St George’s Park and that bodes well for the 30-year-old, considering he usually keeps a special performance for the Newlands faithful.
Although those colossal efforts yielded fairly minimal results in the actual wickets column, the spells that Steyn delivered at England’s Paul Collingwood and Indian master batsman Sachin Tendulkar in consecutive Newlands New Year Tests was the stuff of legend.
His expected duel with Michael Clarke this weekend is shaping up to be a similarly epic contest, with Clarke preparing himself for a battle royale with extra batting time in the nets all week. One can only imagine Steyn’s celebration should he dismiss the Australian captain yet again. Will we see those blood-shot eyes, veins bulging and chain-saw arm swinging again?
“It’s a little bit embarrassing when I’m watching it on the news and everything like that,” Steyn said sheepishly before getting serious. “Look, I’m not really angry. I think it’s more focused aggression.
“If I was running in thinking of cuddly bears, I’m going to be dishing out half-volleys and hamburgers for guys to smash, so I’ve got to kind of get myself into a fight. Not necessarily go down and abuse the batsman on the other side, but I’ve got to get my body ready for a fight and I feel like when I’m doing that, I know I have this expression on my face, veins are popping out and my celebrations and what not, but that’s just when I’m performing at my best.”
It is this type of focused aggression and confidence that the entire South African team require this weekend. They are the World’s No 1 Test nation and Australia are the pretenders to their throne. The time has come for them to assert that superiority. If they do, Steyn and his mates will take their rightful seats above a previous generation of South African greats like Graeme Pollock, Mike Procter, Ali Bacher and Barry Richards. Their destiny waits…