Australia vs South Africa: Listless hosts in danger of unprecedented Test whitewash at home
Australia got hammered by a side powered by a rampant pace triumvirate, and a wicketkeeper-batsman scoring a free-flowing hundred.
Hobart is the scene of one of cricket's most memorable Great Escape acts. Back in 1999, a newbie wicketkeeper and a top order batsman struggling to make a name in international cricket came together to script an epoch-making win in Test cricket's history. It's significant, not because the Aussies won - they were on a hot streak for six years at home at that time - but for redefining the way the game's longest format would be played in the years to come, and how the role of the wicketkeeper-batsman would evolve.
Coming in at 126/5, chasing 369 with just over a day to go, Adam Gilchrist, playing just his second Test, and Justin Langer, blunted Pakistan's attack on the fourth evening, before launching into an unforgettable counterattack, sweeping, pulling and driving on their way to a famous win. At the end of it, Gilchrist got to 149 not out, while Langer departed with just five runs to go, having made 127.
And Pakistan? It was that Pakistan. The one they show you in every highlights reel and pre-match graphics packages even today - Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Saqlain Mushtaq and a young, express paceman named Shoaib Akhtar. This win would, in many ways, set the template for Australia's habit of waking up from the dead and winning matches they had no right competing in. This was the third win in that famous 16-win streak ended by VVS Laxman and his chums in Kolkata, two years later.
Fast forward to 2016. Bellerive Oval is now the Blundstone Arena. The Australian cricket team has shed its skin a few times, and this isn't even a Ship of Theseus lookalike anymore. There just aren't enough functioning parts to even make it an imitation worth comparing.
They got hammered by a side powered by a rampant pace triumvirate, and a wicketkeeper-batsman scoring a free-flowing hundred following the tenets of counterattack defined by Maester Gilchrist all those years ago. Lots of parallels, except both the batting and bowling tormentors were playing for the opposition.
These men do not carry a reputation close to Pakistan's class of 1999 - not yet anyway - but this Australian side's struggles run deep.
South Africa have now done a historic treble in Australia. 2-1 in 2008-'09, 1-0 in 2012-'13 and now on course for an unprecedented 3-0 whitewash, unless a miracle of the 1999 sort happens under the lights in Adelaide. All of this without AB de Villiers even landing on those shores, and Dale Steyn barely playing out a day's cricket before being ruled out with an injury.
South Africa have achieved what only one other side apart from 1990s West Indies have done in Test cricket's 140-year history. It is momentous, and deserves to be celebrated. Or introspected upon, as the case may be.
South Africa's patience, investment and persistence with an upcoming lot has paid rich dividends, while it is a correspondingly befuddled mindset that has undone the Australians. Quinton De Kock, Temba Bavuma, Dean Elgar and Kyle Abbott are all long-term bets who have been stuck to, given their adequate dose of first-class cricket and thrown into these conditions, in which most of them are first-timers, and in Elgar's case, had a horror run in the past. JP Duminy, a man who almost quit this format last year, has come back and contributed in his own, match-defining way. They have all shone in the absence of the superstars, vindicating their system's faith in them, along with a hat tip to common sense at large.
Australia, on the other hand, have had top order batsmen playing victims, former cricketers asking them to "shut up and score runs", had selected a 27-year-old paceman who can "bat a bit" over far more proven specialists at the domestic level, and are faced with their own dilemmas over characters like Mitchell Marsh and Joe Burns, who could either turn out to be prudent long-term investments or disasters. There is no recognisable "middle order" anymore, with only David Warner and Steve Smith delineating themselves as oases of relief and respectability.
Drubbings in faraway shores, in time zones the larger public would miss, are a different beast from this. This is a home thrashing, in the wake of a series of lows in South Africa and Sri Lanka. Before these series, this batting core had only played twin series against New Zealand and West Indies, pummeling them systematically. They have all been compared to Bradman at different points of time, their artificially high statistical peaks offering a convenient illusion, going into this season.
This isn't England they are losing to, which means an Argus review equivalent is hard to foresee yet. But this is an abominable low in their proud Test history, for the teams that they are losing to are nowhere comparable to the West Indian sides that thrashed them in the 1980s and 1990s. Kim Hughes cried and walked away after twin series defeats, and there was genuine fear in the ranks then, faced with the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding. This, a South African side missing their attack's leader whose only meaningful contribution was clairvoyance ("we just need to cut off the head of the snake"), has no such demi-gods whose records and reputation shake your systems up as a batsman.
Despite all this, Callum Ferguson and Adam Voges got out to near-identical half-hearted leaves that would put any half-decent batsman to shame, Joe Mennie made the longest walk ever before reviewing a decision, and opener Burns got out casually nicking one down leg. Their batting is an omnishambles, not just because of this collapse, but due to their near-metronomic ability to self-destruct in diverse conditions over these past few years.
There are now listicles that talk about Australian batting collapses since 2012, and in this year of barely-believable global events, this has ought to go down as a cricket equivalent. How the mighty have fallen.
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