Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Australia's tour of South Africa 2011

Both the captains contemplating how to end the series on a high

Never has there been a dull moment in cricket when these two teams meet together. Most of cricket experts and commentators believe that, and so do we as cricket-lovers. None of us can forget the 1999 World Cup Semi-final between the two sides, or the record chase of 434 by South Africa in 2006, or the 1997/98 epic Carlton & United Series (which also featured New Zealand) or this Australia's tour in 2011.

In fact this series has been such a humdinger that if you look at the result sheet of the entire tour that had 2 T20Is, 3 ODIs and 2 Tests, then the results are nothing short of staggering. Starting from the T20, it goes like Australia, South Africa, Australia, South Africa, Australia, South Africa and finally Australia, winning the last test match and leveling the series. It was very pleasing as a spectator to see that the last test match lived up to that level where we got entertained to the limit and the longer version of the game got fantastic advertisement.

Entering into the final Test match, Australia had been mauled by the South African in the 1st Test at Cape Town, when the Aussies were bundled out for an eye-popping score of 47 and then Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla guided the chase to avoid further more hiccups while chasing 236 runs, with both of them scoring brilliant hundreds.

One thing was sure, Australia was down and out after the 1st Test and as Shane Watson said after the match that “there was panic in the dressing room” when they saw themselves at one stage to be 21 for 9 and eventually bowled out at 47, it seemed difficult that Australia would be able to come back so quickly. So it took a lot of courage and character on the part of the Australians to recover from such an embarrassing defeat and then win the 2nd Test in Jo'burg by 2 wickets and that too in a record chase of 310 runs. There were already concerns about the form of players like Ponting and Johnson and fitness issues with Marsh and Harris. However, Clarke and company would be glad to see that the replacements of Marsh and Harris, in the form of Khawaja and Cummins came good in the match who actually played a significant part during the course of the match.

South Africa won the toss on a fine morning in Johannesburg and elected to bat immediately. The eyes of the whole world were screwed to the debutant, Patrick Cummins simply because of the hype the guy had made as a genuine fast, tall and young bowler to emerge in world cricket. Now it is safe to say, after the conclusion of the match that Cummins did live up to the hype and is now definitely, one of the futures of Australian cricket and world cricket, in general.

Pat Cummins - a name, hopefully, we'll hear alot more for all the good reasons

 South Africa managed to score 266 on a good batting track, which was touch disappointing for them because when Australia started their batting, the first wicket to fall was of Hughes when both the openers had amassed 174 in very good time. However, the Australian failed to consolidate on that fantastic start provided by the openers as they went from 174 for no loss to 296 all out, with a collapse that was only briefly halted by Hussey and Johnson but couldn't avoid the inevitable. With a lead of 30 runs on South Africa, they had a bit of a chasing to do but there were couple of factors that were in favour of them, one that there was ample of time for them and second that the pitch was still playing perfectly at stage. South Africa went about their business of first wiping the lead, which the two openers did very quickly, and then get enough on the board to dismiss the Australians. In the process, Hashim Amla brought up his 14th century of his career, 2nd in the series and a staggering 7th in his last twelve test matches. He is a special talent, special batsman and the joy of watching him play his trademark glances and exquisite drives fast turns into an unquenchable treat. He was ably supported by AB de Villiers' 2nd fifty of the match, laced with his typical strokeplay. However, the Aussies were able to reduce South Africa's march for a bigger score from 237 for 3 to 266 for 7, but it was the tail again, that has over the period become a nuisance and cause of defeats for Australia on numerous occasions. Australian bowlers found it difficult to get through Philander and Steyn who took the lead from less than 250 to over 300, where both of them were involved in a brilliant and equally frustrating partnership of 48 runs. And it didn't end with the dismissal of Philander and Morkel as Steyn decided that he has to take matters into his own hands. Steyn launched an unbelievable attack on the Australian bowlers as well as looked to farm the strike to protect a genuine number 11, Imran Tahir. Steyn struck 3 monstrous sixes to eventually become Cummins sixth scalp in the innings but not before Steyn had taken to 300 and for good measure, to 309.

Earlier, Cummins grabbed his first five-fer on debut when he made a mess of Morkel's stumps with a yorker that seem to have come down from Eiffel Tower at a bolt of lightning speed. At the age of 18, Cummins showed immense control, talent and ability to ruffle the feathers of someone like Jacques Kallis to whom he bowled a probing over, only later to get his wicket. Cummins is extremely young and therefore, it becomes imperative for the Australians to look after this young talent rather than end up over-utilising him, a point was acknowledged by Michael Clarke and the new Australian coach, Mickey Arthur.

In came the Australia's turn to bat to chase a daunting target of 310 runs and level the series, but if there was ever a start that would categorise as a perfect start for the hosts, they achieved it by scalping for Shane Watson for a duck in the very first over. It didn't take a lot of time for South Africa to get through a struggling Phil Hughes, with Australia tottering at 19 for 2, with two new batsmen at the crease - one a rookie with a future ahead and the other, perhaps, past his prime with an uncertain future in the game. However, both had to prove a point and both did incredibly well as they guided the chase close to stumps on the 4th day to 142/3, with Khawaja getting out in the penultimate over of the day to the leg-spinner Imran Tahir but not before the rookie had scored an aggressive, Australian-style fifty which included a powerful six of Steyn. In the process of that dismissal both Khawaja and Tahir created a small history of their own by being the first Pakistan-born to represent Australia and South Africa, respectively.

The next morning, the pair of Ponting and Clarke was the key for Australia's chances in the match and for South Africa, dismantling the pair was the top priority in the first hour of play, and so they did. Philander who found prodigious movement of the seam, castled the Australia captain between bat and pad, which turned the match heavily in South Africa's favour. 20 runs later, at 165 for 4, Ponting was dismissed after adding eight more runs to his overnight score to be dismissed at 62. Things certainly looked desperate for the visitors, but the never-die attitude of the Aussies perhaps kept them in the game as Australia found contributors who hadn't contributed much in the entire tour for the team, where Hussey scored 39 to put a vital partnership with Haddin of 50 runs. But it was the counter-attack of sorts from Haddin and Johnson - the most unlikely players given their present form – putting on a partnership of 72 at over 5 runs per over. With that partnership the match started to tilt in Australia's favour. However, in Australia-South Africa matches, they can't do away with twists and drama as Haddin fell on 287, opening a little gate for the hosts to run through the tail. Like Australia, the South Africans found it difficult to go past Siddle, who fell at 292, as Australia got across the line with two wickets remaining, courtesy a brilliant cameo from Cummins who deservedly scored the final winning runs for his team.

The enthralling victory signified a number of points, that you can't write out Australia; never to count out a legend like Ponting, though he would have preferred to score a century and might have not exactly saved his career but would just have bought some extra time; and that when these two meet, the cricket administrators are doing no good by having only two test matches.

At times words can fail to describe the excitement, drama and level of entertainment these two teams bring on to the cricket field. However, a series like this is an indicator that Test cricket is here to stay and if pitches around the world are sporting enough to assist both bat and bowl, then cricket is the ultimate winner.

But experience tells us that this, like all other issues, might be falling on deaf ears.

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