JOHANNESBURG – The game itself felt like a distraction for most of the opening day at the Wanderers on Friday.
That’s what sport is usually supposed to be – some time to get away from the harsh realities of life.
Except this week, the harsh realities of cheating in sport have made the playing of the game seem far less important.
The Australians, not surprisingly for much of the day seemed distracted, or more likely battling an emotional hangover that resulted from watching their captain tearfully apologise upon arriving home or their coach tearfully announcing this would be his last match in charge.
The crowd seemed – initially at least – sympathetic too.
It was decidedly muted for much of the first half of the day as they seemed wary about getting into the touring team too much – perhaps they too were feeling the sting resulting from spectator troubles in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.
The Australian players were themselves muted; all this talk of a new culture and behaving better meaning the snarling aggression of the first three Tests was absent. That no doubt had something to do with the absence of the arch aggressor too.
The match needed someone to take hold of it, and so step forward 23-year-old Aiden Markram – a player with a bright future, at a time when the future of the game and the way it is played is very topical.
Markram has long been recognised as a future great of the game, even has his path through the ranks has been a cautious one.
His supreme talent is matched by an even temperament, and at international level, he is quickly coming to terms with the fact that he need not play every shot in his very wide repertoire.
Not that he was shy on Friday.
There were numerous cover drives to applaud, a couple of square drives through the offside were sweetly timed, and the lofted six off Nathan Lyon was a highlight.
It was most definitely a performance that matched style with substance, and from a South African point of view, makes the future seem brighter.
Markram, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Quinton de Kock and Keshav Maharaj have the makings of an excellent core around which the Proteas can build over the next decade.
It will be a decade shaped, one feels, by the events of the last few weeks. The fallout from the drama around the ball tampering scandal has been severe, certainly more than the players could have reckoned.
The International Cricket Council, having viewed the harsh penalties handed out by Cricket Australia, have finally sought to hold a broad review into player conduct.
It is hoped that at the conclusion of that review, there’ll be a clearer picture (or line) about what’s allowed and what isn’t.
With all eyes on them in this match, the players on both sides were on or close to their best behaviour on Friday.
WICKET. Cummins strikes for Australia. Amla edges the ball and is well-caught by Handscomb on 27. SA 142/2 (44.4 ovs). The crowd goes wild as AB de Villiers walks to the crease. #SAvAUS #SunfoilTest pic.twitter.com/BfXjJU1Gww
It took until 4.59pm for the first little chirp from an Australian bowler, with Josh Hazlewood reminding Temba Bavuma about his off-stump.
It was a day of normal cricket, if you will – even if the atmosphere for the first session-and-a-half was somewhat strange.
And that was a relief, given everything that’s happened in this series, and particularly in the last week.
One could feel concern about Proteas captain Faf du Plessis’ continuing run of poor form, Hashim Amla’s inability to turn starts into something substantial, or that AB de Villiers lacked the fluidity of the previous matches in this series, but still contributed.
There was an Australian fightback in the final session worthy of praise, when they seemed to finally shake off the effects of the last few days and remember – as Adam Gilchrist reminded them – why they play this game.
Pat Cummins, a wonderfully boisterous cricketer, led that fightback with three wickets, and the debutant Chadd Sayers will tell long tales to his grandkids of his maiden Test wicket – De Villiers.
Stumps, day 1: SA 313/6, Bavuma 25*, De Kock 7*. Markram (152) sensational today & De Villiers added a measured 69. Who can’t wait for tomorrow?! #ProteaFire #SAvAUS #SunfoilTest 🇿🇦🔥 pic.twitter.com/rZ5kwNpHkL
The day might have started with everyone weighed down by the events of the last week. It ended with South Africa probably holding a slight advantage.
There was no talk of sandpaper or sanctions, but there was celebration for the magnificence of a fine hand played by a young man for whom the future looks very bright.