JOHANNESBURG - Some might grumble that the final Test between South Africa and Australia was a damp squib, after the fiery fare that had preceded it, but there was still some real significance to come out of the final throes of an unforgettable summer.
South Africa won – handsomely, to be sure – and they rightly beamed in the afterglow of a historic series victory, as well as a comeback that showed a depth of character that some might have questioned.
“This means a lot to us. We did speak about it this morning, saying we had a chance to go down in the history books,” Faf du Plessis smiled.
Du Plessis and his team certainly rewrote the record books, and the margin of victory was gargantuan.
“Beat them pretty big… I think 490 is pretty big,” Du Plessis quipped.
Australia, after perhaps their toughest week in their distinguished history, emerged as a team aware of the need to go a different way, away from what was long revered as the ‘Australian way’.
“We maybe had our head in the sand over the last twelve months. We maybe thought that if we continued to win, then the Australian public would be okay with that. What we have found out in the past week is that the Australian public don’t necessarily like the way we go about it,” the increasingly impressive new captain, Tim Paine reflected.
“It’s pretty simple. We have to listen. We have to improve our behaviour and the way we play the game. I know the guys are certainly taking on board, and it’s something we are excited to go forward and try to do,” Paine added.
South Africa acknowledged that the fourth Test had a different atmosphere, and they have welcomed the visitors’ intent to change the way they approach the game.
“Their culture is something that they have spoken about that they would like to change. That’s good. If they say it, it means that it needs to change. Time will tell what kind of effect it will have in their dressing-room,” Du Plessis noted.
“I think our culture is the same, no matter who we play. It’s not about the opposition - it’s about us. The stuff that falls out of line, we quickly nip it in the bud, because we don’t want it to have a cancer effect, where it spreads through the team and you start having a few bad things happen through the team.
“You will ask a lot of players, and they will say that this culture in the Proteas’ team is something you have to be a part of to understand how special it is. We take a lot of pride in it, and you have to, in order for it to be like a 12th man,” Du Plessis expanded.
South Africa, for their part, have always loved the battle against Australia. It brings out the very best of them, and the early demise in Durban was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to them and the series.
“I’d like to think we were very motivated before the series, but there was definitely a shift in mind-set after that first Test. It almost went from motivated to motivated/angry to try and turn it around,” Du Plessis revealed.
“The guys were really pumped after the first game. For the first time, I could feel like all eleven guys were really looking forward to the next game to try and make a play in the series.”
The man of the match – and the man who hogged the headlines for the most part – was Kagiso Rabada. The best bowler in the world ducked a disciplinary bouncer before Newlands, but he ended the series head and reconsidered shoulders above the rest.
Asked which one was his favourite of 23 scalps in a remarkable series, there was a knowing smile, and an answer that surprised few. “Definitely Steve Smith,” he smiled.
The likes of Rabada, Aiden Markram, Temba Bavuma, Lungi Ngidi and Keshav Maharaj have never tasted a series defeat against Australia. To this point, that distinction has been most un-South African.
Deep into Tuesday afternoon, they sat in the Wanderers home dressing-room, sharing beers with the enemy, and already looking forward to the next crossing of swords.
That series will have an awful lot to live up to.