JOHANNESBURG – Test matches between Australia and South Africa, particularly in the last decade, have been bruising affairs - and not just because it’s left participants with a variety of fractured bones and physical scars.
There is something distinctly raw about the encounters between the two teams. Both teams play aggressively, whether with bat, ball or in the field.
Bowling is dominated by the quick men; Dale Steyn in 2008, Mitchell Johnson in 2014 and Kagiso Rabada in 2016, have been the men at the forefront of what were cricketing gladiatorial contests.
It has grated with a couple of generations of South African players that they have not beaten Australia in South Africa since this country’s return from international sporting isolation.
Graeme Smith joked that he was happy to have led two winning teams to Australia - and they are indeed enormous achievements - but the closest he came to winning against the Australians on home soil was 2011, when - 1-0 up - an 18-year-old Pat Cummins inspired a two-wicket victory on a tense fifth afternoon at the Wanderers.
Along with Kepler Wessels’ team in 1994 - that drew a three-Test series 1-1 - that’s the closest the South Africans have come to beating Australia on home soil. Along with the absence of a World Cup, not winning a Test series against Australia here is the other gaping hole on the South African cricket CV.
And it is only in 1994 and 2011 where the South Africans have held a series lead against Australia here, which indicates the importance of the first Test that started in Durban on Thursday morning.
The Australians adapt to conditions here better than any other team bar perhaps England. Steve Smith called conditions in both countries the closest they are for any two cricketing nations.
Mitchell Starc and Cummins admitted last week in Benoni, that bowling conditions here are better than at home, with swing and seam movement, added to the pace off the surface.
And that aids their aggression, something the South Africans have failed to match in the last 25 years, when facing Australia here.
Given the debilitating manner in which South Africa folded against India in the one-day and T20 international series, winning the four-Test series against Australia becomes critically important for captain Faf du Plessis and coach Ottis Gibson.
It’s a summer that started brightly, but has quickly faded as India dominated, and if the season is to be deemed a success, then the South Africans have to do something a couple of generations of great cricketers failed to do.