TELFORD VICE, Perth
THE crunch of spikes on concrete resounded through the warren of corridors deep in the Lillee Marsh Stand at the WACA on Monday.
Out on the field, the poignance of a game won and lost was all around. Nothing and no-one moved as another long Perth afternoon burnished the scene.
But the wonder of it all hung heavy in the air. Like it did in 2008 and again in 2012. This time it hung heavier still.
South Africa, without AB de Villiers, without for the most part Dale Steyn, with a single run in two innings from the famously broad bat of Hashim Amla, with only two seamers, a debutant and a host of part-timers, with Australia on 158 without loss in reply to their first innings of 242 at stumps after the second day, had won the first test by 177 runs.
How the hell had that happened?
With every crunch of those spikes on that storied concrete the answer to the question drew nearer.
Round the last corner came the spikes, and with them came Faf du Plessis.
He upped a thumb at the three reporters who had arrived too late to be let into Steve Smith’s press conference, looked at the shut door behind which the Australian captain was trying to explain how the hell what had happened had happened, and turned on his heel.
There was no hurry. Nothing could change what had happened. Nothing could take the feeling away. Nothing could fade either the smile on Du Plessis’ face nor the gleam in his eye.
After a few minutes the door opened and Smith snuck out looking like he would rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Who could blame him. He had had to explain Australia’s fourth loss on the bounce in test cricket, their sixth consecutive defeat to South Africa if we’re counting last month’s one-day series, and the first time they have gone down in the first test of a home summer since 1988.
Then came Du Plessis, and his thoughts tumbled out in a happy stream of consciousness …
“In my career that’s one of the most special days,” he said. “To turn it around 360 degrees from day one where we were under the pump and under a lot of pressure, to turn it around on day two was one of the best days of cricket I’ve been involved in.
“To have a seamer down pretty much the whole test match and to do what we’ve done – we always joke about it, that if you lose a seamer in a three-seamer attack its 99% impossible to win a game of test cricket because it’s just too much workload on the bowlers.
“Somehow we managed to do it and there’s a lot of credit that goes to this man over here.”
With that he landed a hearty slap on the thigh of Kagiso Rabada sitting beside him as the man-of-the-match for his haul of 5/92 in the second innings.
“He’s put up his hand and he’s bowled really well. And also Keshav (Maharaj).
“He relentlessly bowled in a good area and made sure we could rotate the guys from the other end and just build a bit of pressure.
“That’s right up there with the best test matches for me in my career. We said this morning wanted to take it to tea. We wanted to be the team that fights the whole day. We weren’t expecting it to be easy and it wasn’t. It was a proper game of test cricket and it finished just how we wanted it to.”
Australia, looking to bat all day, resumed on 169/4. That was always going to be unlikely, but to get through them South Africa needed bottomless patience and expert management of their resources.
They showed ample amounts of both, and reaped the rewards.
None more so than Rabada, who earned a special tribute from his captain.
“I’m sleeping with him tonight,” Du Plessis said as he hugged his new favourite fast bowler.
“‘KG’ just wanted the ball. Everytime I asked him if he was tired, if he was done, he said, ‘No. You’re not taking the ball out of my hand’.
“That’s a sign of a champion bowler for me.”
Indeed, and from deep in the Lillee Marsh Stand to out on the field where the sun was swinging ever lower to clean across the Indian Ocean and beyond, there was no mistaking that sign.