We’ve now had a few days to digest the extraordinary story of last week’s Cape Town test match, in which South Africa beat Australia by eight wickets, despite being bowled out first innings for 96, and conceding a deficit of 188. The Saffers regained the initiative by blowing away the visitors for 47 second dig, before imperious centuries by Hasim Amla and Graeme Smith forged an eventually emphatic victory.
All the feedback we received from our original post about this remarkable match, and the chat on Twitter, highlighted the mixed emotions England supporters experience whenever our two arch-rivals clash. The general sense is – what a shame it had to be South Africa, of all teams, who inflicted this humiliation on our oldest enemy.
We don’t hate Australia. Despite the longevity of our on-field hostilities against them – 134 years and counting – the Baggy Greens are actually our closest soul-mates, in cricketing terms. The English and the Convicts share more common ground, surely, than any other pair of the game’s senior nations.
We are cousins – ethnically, culturally, and historically. We share the same heritage and sense of humour; in a cricket sense we are on the same wavelength – banter, emotions, taunts and gloats. There are many close Anglo-Australian cricketing friendships – both at international level and on the village green. Ancestry, travel and working holidays have intertwined both our peoples.
What about the Saffers? Hate – well, that’s a word to use carefully in a sporting context. But if we’re honest, few England followers have much affection for their cricket team. We think of them as arrogant, boorish, aloof, bad losers – and that’s just Graeme Smith.
As a nation, they feel more alien from us than the Aussies do. Our imperial connection is looser and less affectionate. The ribaldry lacks warmth and tastes more bitter. There is little to bond us.
All of which only complicates the issue of the moment, and one we’ve wrestled with on this blog before. When Australia play South Africa at cricket – who do we, as England fans, want to win?
It is usually a great source of joy to witness the Antipodeans being marmalised, not only for the simple fact of their being Australian – but because they ruled the roost for so long, and made our own side suffer more than any other. Oh, what rapture to see them bowled out for 47 – and at one point, 21-9 and on the precipice of record-breaking ignominy. But their misfortune only served to put an epic smile on the Saffers’ faces – and is that a price worth paying?
Tricky, isn’t it? Perhaps the best approach is to assess the dilemma dispassionately in terms of what it means for England on the field of play. We face South Africa in a three test series here next summer, and the following season, it’s the Ashes.
On the evidence of Cape Town, Australia are still a creaky old banger held together by sticky tape – and in the absence of genuinely dynamic new talent emerging, are still reliant on the usual clutch of super-annuated old warhorses. Michael Clarke is back to his best, but Ponting looks finished and Mike Hussey can’t go on for ever. Their batting generally looks fragile.
The Aussies’ most effective bowlers are Shane Watson and the under-rated Ryan Harris – who while decent players, shouldn’t cause our batsmen too many sleepless nights. Hilariously, in a terrific match for bowlers, the hapless Mitchell Johnson managed only one wicket – and that was a gimme, when the game was already lost.
As for South Africa, we already know about Dale Steyn, but time will tell whether Vernon Philander is really as incisive as Australia’s ineptness made him look.
Their batting is the chief threat to us next summer. The entire top order is strong: Hasim Amla gets better and better, Graeme Smith remains an awesome competitor, while Jacques Kallis looks set to continue playing into his eighties.
What we don’t want is for South Africa to emerge from this series with a huge psychological boost. Winning is a habit. So the best case scenario is probably this: the next and final match is either a rain-affected draw, or Australia flukily nick a tight contest thanks to some dropped catches or DRS mess-ups. Ideally, the Saffers will end up doubting themselves, while the Aussies will kid themselves into thinking their moth-eaten squad is more competitive than it actually is.