It now seems like an eternity ago that Aiden Markram edged Josh Hazlewood to second slip in the fourth over of the Test match. The reality is that it was only four days ago. But with so many tribulations over the past two days, the cricketing contest had become invisible.
The Test had begun on a bright, sunny Cape Town day with a crowd in excess of 10,000. It was a sight to cherish, cricket fans in South Africa flocking to watch and support their national team against an opposition that had inadvertently raised the patriotism in a country just when it seemed like it was difficult to attract spectators to watch Test cricket.
For the majority of the opening day, the fans cheered as the ever-resilient Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla repelled the early nerves by putting on gritty 86-run stand. For the duration of this series, Amla, Elgar and Markram’s ability to see off the new ball had laid the platform for AB de Villiers. It was no different at Newlands, as De Villiers cashed in through the middle session with a series of glorious drives and deft touches.
However, in spite of De Villiers’ brilliance, the real hero was Elgar. For the first time in the series, Elgar expanded his shoulders and decided to dictate the game to Australia. His deliberate and methodical plan to attack Nathan Lyon was a feature of his fluent innings. In between, there was still the occasional blow in the chest or the wrap on the knuckles, but this is Elgar, he thrives on such instances. People term him as an ugly cricketer, but he is happy with that reputation.
So it was no surprise to see him, embraced with such a passion by De Villiers after reaching his ton. It was the innings of the Test match, but sadly for Elgar, his innings will never be the talking point. Not that he would mind, he already has the respect of his peers. Aiden Markram summed up his opening partner’s innings the best when he tweeted ‘What a pleasure witnessing Dean Elgar, the first man you take to a war’.
Elgar not only reached his ton, but on second day, he managed to carry his bat to remain 141 not out, as the middle order collapsed around him. His crucial 50-run, eighth wicket stand propelled South Africa to 311.
The parochial crowd probably got the better of David Warner, as he set about silencing them by smashing their hero, Kagiso Rabada into the oblivion. But by the time Rabada uprooted his off-stump to send Newlands into raptures, one could sense the match was turning.
South Africa’s understanding of local conditions had prompted Morne Morkel’s inclusion into the side and the lanky paceman justified his selection by snaring Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith in a spell that once again indicated why even the great batsmen of the modern era find him one of the most difficult bowlers to handle.
By the 30th over, the ball had started to reverse swing and Australian middle order, apart from a gritty 77 from Cameron Bancroft, were once again blown apart by Rabada and Vernon Philander. It took an adventurous knock of 47 from Lyon, to ensure Australia trailed by only 56 runs in the first innings.
The match was still in the balance. It was riveting and engrossing cricket, as good as a Test match can offer. At 104-2, the match was poised on a knife’s edge. A wicket for Australia would have exposed the out-of-form middle order against the reverse-swinging ball. But De Villiers and Markram rallied and frustrated the Australians.
Their defiance and Australia’s inability to penetrate through both of them brought about a series of actions that led to the interest on the cricket field to diminish.
Australia, led by Smith, had conjured up a preconceived plan at lunch time to tamper the condition of the ball. Bancroft was the scapegoat and the offender. The 30 cameras on the ground did not miss a beat and the rest now is history.
At stumps, De Villiers and Quinton De Kock had taken the lead to 296, but this was no longer about the contest between bat and ball. This was a match about the integrity of the game. It was about the corrosive culture of the Australian cricket team and the embarrassment it had inflicted on a cricket-loving nation.
By Day 4, Australia had a new captain on the field. There were no smiles, but just guilty faces hiding themselves behind dark sunglasses. De Villiers fell early, but De Kock and Philander rallied to set the Australians a mammoth total of 430.
The South African bowlers smelt blood, Warner pushed and prodded, his mind muddled and clogged with thoughts of his reputation being further tarnished and his dream of captaining the Baggy Green disappearing with a sinful act. He was involved in a mix-up with Bancroft, the pair clearly not on the same page with their calling as they went about constructing a plan to tamper with the ball during the lunch break on Day 3.
One wicket brought two, three and so on. With each wicket, the roar of the home crowd grew louder. Smith and Warner copped a mouthful, as they entered and exited the arena. Australia went from 1-57 to be all-out for 107. Morkel finished with 5-23, and the under-rated Keshav Maharaj 2-32.
The South Africans celebrated ecstatically and rightfully so. They were ready for a tight tussle with the willow and the ball from Day 1 of the series. The Australians, however, had come to the Rainbow Nation with an agenda to keep pushing the threshold on their infamous on-field antics and test the line of integrity. But cricket is a lovely game and has the uncanny ability to slam the door in your face. Australians have lost the Test and also their fans. This loss will perhaps be the most difficult to digest.
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Elgar (46 batting off 121 balls) took some nasty blows off deliveries that spat off the cracks but kept his team on course at 118 for 2 in pursuit of a tricky 240-run target set by India in the wake of a solid century-plus partnership from the under-fire duo of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane
Hyperbole is a scourge in cricket analysis but this Test series win has a strong claim to being the best in South Africa’s history.
The dashing left-handed batter-wicketkeeper had announced his retirement from the longest format of the game after the first Test of the series which India won, saying he wants to spend more time with his growing family.