TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
A lot changed in South Africa between 1910 and 2005, but not the fact that when their cricket team ventured over the horizon and far away to play test series against Australia they did not win.
They drew three of them – on the bounce between 1952 and 1993 – but lost the other five.
The Aussies, it seemed, were always too cocky, two steps ahead, and too good.
But not in 2008-09. Nor in 2012-13. South Africa won both those series, and handsomely.
What, then, are the differences between the South African teams who have lost in Australia and those who have won?
Many are capable of captaining a cricket team, far fewer of leading it.
When Graeme Smith first took South Africa to Australia, in 2005-06, he had scored 10 test centuries and captained his team in 31 tests. Had he led? Yes: in England in 2003, when he scored double centuries in consecutive tests.
But leading in England is different from leading in Australia, where going out to bat with a broken hand is worth a century in respect. Smith, famously, did so in Sydney in January 2009. Australia won the match but Smith won hearts and minds – and with them the series. That’s leadership.
Gary Kirsten admitted last week that the South African teams he played for were “intimidated” by Australia. Contrast that with Neil McKenzie’s assertion this week that “most of the guys are worried abut losing their wicket, not of the fear factor – that’s how it probably should be”.
Damn straight. Australians are masters at making opponents think themselves out of the game. JP Duminy refused to let that happen in Melbourne in December 2008, where he scored 166 and South Africa clinched the series.
Duminy scored one in his first innings of that series, in Perth, where Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers made half-centuries. In the second innings Smith and De Villiers banked hundreds, Duminy came up with an unbeaten 50, and South Africa won by six wickets.
In Melbourne Smith passed 50 in both innings, Neil McKenzie scored 59 not out and Dale Steyn, bless him, made 76.
Gone were the days when Kallis or Kirsten stood tall amid the debris of another failed innings.
Consistency is handy, but there is no defence against the continuity of quality performances from different players.
A cricket side is, of course, less a team than a collection of individuals fighting for the same cause. Sometimes they will be unified. Other times they will be in competition with each other, often in cutthroat fashion.
Less rarely than we might think players in the same team cannot stand the sight of each other.
South Africa have fallen into this dangerous trap less than other teams.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have to guard against it happening, especially against opponents who know only too well how to divide and rule.
“This was the sensational match of the tour, the South Africans suffering defeat by 89 runs when everyone thought they had the game in their hands.”
That was Wisden on the Melbourne test that started on New Year’s Eve, 1910. But much the same could have been written about many South African performances in Australia down the ages.
Not so at the WACA in December 2012, when South Africa turned a first-innings lead of 62 into a target of 632 thanks to innings of 196 and 169 by Hashim Amla and De Villiers.
When you’ve tied those kangaroos down sport, make sure they stay that way.