South Africa find their sweet moments in ‘soap opera’


CAPE TOWN: What a strange day to win a Test match. With all the focus on everything but what was happening on the field. With the headlines hijacked by a confession of an attempt to cheat, albeit a failed one. With the hype for one of the most highly-anticipated contests of the modern era hidden behind layers and layers of hysteria.

“It has been bizarre, crazy, ridiculous,” Faf du Plessis said. “We joke about it but it’s literally like a soap opera. There’s something happening every day.”

And the somethings have got out of hand. From stairwell altercations to the shaming of a player’s wife, this series has been overtaken by the sideshows, to the point where du Plessis has now decided there are “too many things happening away from the game,” and it is taking the shine off on-field performances.

Who will remember that Dean Elgar scored a gutsy century to set South Africa up for a fine first-innings score, or that AB de Villiers has made seven scores of 50 or more since his Test comeback three months ago, two of them in this match? Who will remember that South Africa have scored over 300 in three out of four completed innings since being bowled out for 162 in the first innings in Durban? That is a major turnaround in a team’s fortunes but it may be forgotten in the fumes from the fires this series has sparked.

The first innings at Kingsmead revealed a South African side that was underprepared and unable to deal with the reverse-swinging ball and Mitchell Starc. If South Africa were secretly wondering if Australia being able to get the ball to tail earlier than usual as a result of some foul play but was not saying it, they wouldn’t be the only ones asking the question. Whatever the answer, reverse-swing has added a different dimension to a series played in South Africa, which is usually about pace and bounce, and has demanded more than just tough openers from the respective line-ups.

It has required patience and discipline in the middle order, something South Africa has got right more than Australia. “The ball has reversed a lot this series. We joked that normally being an opener in South Africa is the toughest time to bat, but at the moment everyone is putting their hands up to open the batting,” du Plessis said. “The toughest time to bat has been 40-80 overs, where you lose a wicket and you come in and the ball is reversing. And it is two very skilful attacks. The bowling attacks are such big exponents of reverse swing, it’s such a big weapon because it’s pace and late swing. Generally, teams have one, maybe two guys, the Australians have three and we have three. As a batter, it’s really tough.”

And so the achievements of Elgar, Aiden Markram and de Villiers should be celebrated and the form of du Plessis should be questioned but that will come on another day, a less strange day, a day which was not about how long it would be before Australia cracked.

“It was about how can we apply more and more pressure on them as a team? Away from the game, there was a lot of pressure on them from the stuff that was happening, so it was about making sure the boys were even more motivated to tighten the screw and not give them any breathing space whatsoever,” du Plessis said. “Keep it tight on them so they can feel the pressure and know it isn’t going anywhere. The discussion in this last session was to keep at it and once we get through them, we expected it would happen quickly because there is a serious amount of pressure on them as a team.”

What a strange day to be named the captain of your side. When you know you are on a hiding to nothing. Tim Paine admitted as much when he was asked how it felt to lead, and he was in an unenvious position. What could he possibly say to rally troops that had been let down by their commander-in-chief? Would he try to say anything at all?

For their part, South Africa did not say very much at all in the field. They let the ball do the talking and once, they were spoken to by the umpires, who told them to stop throwing it onto the pitch to scuff it up. They let Morne Morkel do the talking at the end.

What a strange day to take your first Test nine-for. On what could be your last day as an international cricketer.

Morkel, one of the game’s true gentleman, who has barely uttered a word in anger across his 12-year career, was so modest about his performance, he didn’t even take credit for it. He even stopped to check on Starc when he hit him on the helmet and then removed him two balls later.

Morkel should be able to say his final goodbyes at the Wanderers next week but stranger things have happened. He will be the first to admit his place in the XI is still not guaranteed.

What a strange kind of insecurity for a man who has 85 Test caps and is one of only five bowlers from his country to have taken 300 Test wickets. But that has been the story of Morkel’s career so on this unusually strange day for cricket, it was fitting that in a series filled with villains, the ultimate gentle giant was its hero.

“I’ll remember his last game in Cape Town as one of the sweetest moments,” du Plessis said of Morkel.

What a strange day it was but for South Africa, what a sweet one too.