Attention will understandably be on the Australians in the aftermath of their staggering defeat against South Africa, but however deep the introspection and however significant the consequences, it should not — must not — be forgotten quite how amazing this performance was from South Africa. Indeed, it would not be hyperbolic to call this one of the best Test match performances of the year.
The conditions were admittedly perfect for seam bowling, but South Africa had to capitalise on them, and capitalise they did. Australia were poor but the Proteas were nothing short of sensational — any team in the world would have struggled to cope with a performance of this quality.
Vernon Philander and Kyle Abbott are two bowlers perfectly suited for conditions such as those encountered in Hobart: Cloud cover and a tinge of grass on the pitch is all they need for their metronomic linem and length and intelligent and subtle variations. With Kagiso Rabada as a third strike bowler, things were always likely to be difficult for Australia's batsmen.
Australia could hardly have prepared themselves for this. Formulating plans for individual batsmen is now expected at the international level, but to perfectly enact these plans is a rare sight. Batsmen these days get in and disrupts plans, bowlers miss their line or stray in length, and methods and ideas are constantly amended. But in this Test, partly because of the conditions, but largely because of South Africa's brilliance, everything the visitors did, worked.
Once South Africa executed their plans, Australia didn't even have the time to respond; rather than being hit off line or being forced into a change, things just worked for the visitors.
For instance, take David Warner's dismissal in the second innings: Despite having a sizeable first innings lead, South Africa decided that the best way to dismiss Warner was to frustrate him and stop him from scoring. So, even though the ball was swinging both ways, rather than bowl full and tempt the drive with a packed cordon and risk Warner getting going, they bowled back of a length and very straight, cramping the left-hander for room.
They stuck to this plan for close to 45 minutes, at which point his frustration was becoming palpable. He played and missed a number of times outside the off-stump. Eventually, he got in a tangle and played onto his stumps — the dismissal was somewhat fortuitous, but the plan had worked — the pressure had told. There was no need for a Plan B.
There were similarly well-executed plans for all members of Australia's top-order. Adam Voges was duped into attacking the first short ball he received in the second innings; Steven Smith was done by the classic two-card trick: Bouncer followed by the full away swinger. Everything South Africa did worked and they were backed up superbly in the field by some great catching, particularly from Quinton de Kock.
De Kock's most significant impact on the game, however, came with the bat. Although this win will be remembered for South Africa's bowling, they were in a tricky situation with the bat, at 132 for 5. There was a worry that South Africa's lead would be under 100, and in helpful bowling conditions, a fourth innings chase may have been difficult. But de Kock's wonderful century and Temba Bavuma's solid 50, were of immense value.
De Kock is a beautiful player to watch. His aggressive pick-up belies the languid nature of his play. Pickaxe on the upswing, paint brush on the downswing, de Kock is a stroke-player not a power-player. He dovetailed nicely with the more compact Bavuma on the third morning. Bavuma has a technique well-suited to the conditions; he plays the ball late and under his eyes, especially outside the off-stump on the front foot, and he was able to survive longer than any other player in the match as a result. The partnership of 144 between the left-hand-right-hand pairing took this match beyond Australia.
Given the brilliance of South Africa's performance, it almost feels harsh to pass significant judgment on the Australians, but this defeat is about more than just this isolated match. This defeat is about how Australia have now lost five matches in a row, including two at home. The management and players will face serious questions about their futures.
In the field, they are fine. In Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon, Australia are three quarters of the way to a strong bowling attack. Improvements can be made, but the bowling is far from the problem.
The problem is the batting. The last five Tests have shown that as soon as the ball moves laterally, be it seam, swing or spin, the techniques of Australia's batsmen are simply not good enough, and they are unable to occupy the crease.
For too long, the reputations of Australian batsmen have been made playing at home in conditions that have, over the past half decade or so, arguably become the most batting friendly in all Test cricket. Pitches in Australia are hard and true, the bounce of the ball is predictable and it rarely seams or swings. Players can hit though the line with confidence. This produces techniques where players go hard at the ball, pushing at it with firm hands.
But when the ball begins to move off the straight, these techniques are exposed. The inability of batsmen to play in conditions other than those which are familiar to them is an issue throughout world cricket. However, it is a particularly acute one for Australia, whose home conditions are so batting-friendly that now, even when the ball begins to seam in a home Test, as it did in Hobart, they are unable to mount a response.
Questions will and should be asked of the management following this defeat. One of the main reasons behind Darren Lehmann's appointment as coach was that it was thought he would bring a relaxed atmosphere to the dressing room. Now, as their technical shortcomings are exposed, Australia are arguably in need of something more than a father figure. Perhaps, if that doesn't mean the end for Lehmann, it should at least mean a replacement for batting coach Graeme Hick.
Ultimately, it is hard to shake the feeling that problems being revealed in Australian cricket by these defeats run deeper than the national team itself. The players — existing and prospective — are simply not good enough. Defeats like these and runs of form like these need scapegoats, but it could be argued that the real culprit here is not an individual but the entire system.
Warner's rise to the Test team was largely predicated on his performances in limited overs cricket and that Voges' second coming was significantly enhanced by his time in county cricket. It begs the question that other than Smith who was the last truly successful batting product of Australia's domestic system? It’s a question that may become harder to answer as long as Australia's homogeneous cricket culture remains unchanged.