For the last 2 years the Sydney test match has been a tight, exciting affair that went right down to the wire. Last year against the Indians it was Michael Clarke – a batsman – who took 3 wickets in the second last over of the match with his part time offies to clinch the match for the Aussies. Remarkably this years match against the South Africans was once more decided with just 10 balls left to bowl.
This has been a great series. Australia may have lost it 2-1 but all throughout it was tight and bitterly fought, with momentum shifts in both directions. Some great cricket was played but what made this possible – and so memorable – was that two such evenly matched teams fought tooth and nail all the way through. South Africa were the better team for 8 of the 15 days I would suggest, but I doubt there is another team in the world who would have withstood Australia as they did. I feel no shame in writing that. It takes two teams to make a great contest, and I am proud to know that a depleted Australian team came so close to winning.
South Africa were never in a position to win the final test, but they fought hard to save it. Victory seemed a formality when the eighth wicket went down on Tuesday, but then two of the South African bowlers showed up some of their batsmen and dug in. They lasted and lasted as the clock ticked and the rain clouds closed in, for more than an hour they resisted until the breakthrough was made.
That might of been it. Graeme Smith, the Proteas captain, had his finger broken the first innings and had it in plaster. There was speculation all day whether he would bat again. But with about 10 overs to go he came out. It was a great moment. The Sydney crowd rose to it's feet and applauded him – we love a fighter.
Batting with virtually one hand he survived one over then two, three, four… Occasionally he would be seen to grimace as the ball clattered into his bat. Down the other end Ntini belied his batting form by hanging tough. And the Australian bowlers, weary after a tough and intense series battled their fatigue to come in ball after ball seeking that one breakthrough that would go some way to vindicating the season.
Then it's the second last over and 12 balls to go and counting. You can bet all the South Africans in the change room were counting them. And on the field Ricky Ponting would have been ticking them off too, but with a totally different mindset. Just one ball, one ball is all it would take and it would be over, but with every minute the balls were diminishing.
Then Mitchell Johnson changes ends. Mitchell Johnson, the next great Aussie cricketer, comes in gathering all his strength for one last effort – come what may this is his last over. And then the second ball of his over he does it. A quicker ball, it hits the pitch and seems to gather speed and darts in at Smith, between his bat and pad before he even knows it, and clatters loudly into his stumps. In a moment it is done, the match won. From tense silence the arena explodes. Johnson leaps in the air, a smile splitting his face. From all over the ground his teammates run in to join the celebration. In the stands the Australian public erupts into joyous noise, while in the Proteas dressing room the coach hangs his head. Game over.
Just a game in the end, but a good one. And though we lost the series regardless it was an important win. We went into the game much depleted and with a very inexperienced bowling attack. We come out of it with options and with new promise, and a sense of confidence renewed.
Mitchell Johnson will be a superstar within 18 months. He's tall, athletic and good looking. And he can do it all. His bowling has come along consistently, but it's his batting that has been a revelation. He is a great all-rounder in the making. And he field pretty handily too. Watch the marketing men go. Before too long he'll be the face of cricket, as well being one of it's great exponents.
Love Peter Siddle too. All heart, all desire, all strength and willpower. And married with skill. He charges in all day like a bull, but there is science im what he does, and intelligence. He's not glamorous but he'll take 200 test wickets plus.
We still have the best batsman in the world in Ponting, and Clarke isn't far behind. Then there are the others to come. Watch out for Phillip Hughes – he's not even playing yet, but 5 years from now he'll be one of the leading batsmen in world cricket. In the meantime I'd select him for the South African tour.
And there'll be others that come out of the woodwork. We always find the players.
Soon then we'll head over to their shores for the return leg. By then many of our missing – Lee, Symonds, Jaques, Clark – should be back. Don't know if we'll see Hayden, but what we are witnessing is the transition of the Australian cricket teamfrom one era to another. There might be the odd hicup, but I think it should go relatively smoothly. And I expect – despite all the ardent dreams of South Africans and Indians, and maybe Poms – that Australia will remain numero uno for years to come.
I picked the Sydney win. I'll stand by my earlier tip – Australia one nil in South Africa.