DURBAN - As Faf du Plessis and Steve Smith waited for the obligatory, pre-series trophy shoot, they chewed the fat on the Kingsmead outfield, back slapping, smiling and joking like former schoolmates at a reunion.
There was no awkwardness, certainly no hostility, and no shortage of familiarity. The cricket world is getting smaller, and the bull-snorting theatre of a Merv Hughes or an Allan Donald are almost a thing of old.
Thus, South Africa and Australia will get a much-anticipated Test series started in Durban on Thursday, and the general theme between the two teams is respect. They have spoken up each other’s abilities, lavished praise on individuals and spoken with great fondness about what this series means to them.
Not long after 10am, however, you can expect the pleasantries to end. It may be Kagiso Rabada, or Mitchell Starc, but one fired up seamer will slice through the kind words with an unsubtle bumper, and the scene will be terrifically set.
Beyond that release of testosterone, friendships will cease on the field, and two of the finest teams in world cricket will wage sincere war on each other over 20 days of Test fine dining. There is much class spread across both teams, and there is also enough youthful exuberance to ensure that there will be few dull passages.
It is not in either team’s nature to back down, to wince when confronted, and hope that the storm will pass soon. They scrap, they counter-punch, and they defend their corner with all the graceful hostility of the lands that they inhabit.
It is no wonder that both teams feel at home, even away from home when facing each other. There is a lot of familiarity, and the lesser pressure of being hosts probably plays into their hands.
“You expect home conditions to suit both teams, but it hasn’t been the case. We really want to try and put a peg in the ground and change that, but that is easier said than done,” South African skipper Du Plessis suggested.
There is something about a series against Australia, and there is definitely something about Australia in South Africa that South Africa have not yet figured out.
“I would say it is the most competitive series that we play. We are both extremely competitive nations, and we try and leave it all on the field,” Du Plessis added, warming to the pending collision.
Smith, meanwhile, looked forward to continuing a proud Aussie tradition in these parts. None of the combatants were even born the last time South Africa beat the Aussies 4-0, in 1970. It has been that long, and Smith and his hard-hitting crew would like to inflict yet more pain.
“Australia has a pretty proud history here in South Africa. We haven’t been beaten here in a long time, but we are going to have to start well in this first Test,” he warned.
Like most of his players, Smith has nothing but pleasant memories of playing in South Africa. It was here, at Centurion, where he made a hundred that convinced him that he had what it takes to be a world-beater. “Knowing you can get a hundred against a good attack, that gave me a lot of belief that I can do that against anyone really,” he said of that ground-breaking knock.
Since then, of course, Smith has touched Bradman-esque heights, with his seemingly unnatural style plundering runs against all-comers. South Africa know that they have to keep him quiet to have a sniff, just as Australia want to silence a highly-motivated AB de Villiers over four matches.
These things, all these things, are easier said than done. Australia and South Africa meetings always inspire someone to stand out, to unfurl their full array of skills. “Both fast bowling attacks are very good, so it should make for exciting cricket,” Smith said expectantly.
The curators have been asked to calm things down, because anything like the pitches provided for India may just reduce the series into a procession of wickets and body blows for fine batsmen.
Thankfully, Kingsmead has become suitably becalmed from the green mamba it used to be. But don’t expect that to stop a fury of fast men trying to get onto the snouts of some of the game’s best players. It ought to be terrific and, thankfully, the wait is over.