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Monday, 21 November 2011

South Africa vs. Australia: believe the hype

Did you know that test cricket is dying? Test cricket has been dying every year since I started watching cricket. It was dying in 2005. It was dying in 2009. It was definitely dying last year when England won the Ashes. The proof of this 'death', apparently, is the ridiculously short series between South Africa and Australia. Two games barely seems to constitute a series, but I'd argue that the cricket we've seen played over two days has proved that test cricket, whilst maybe suffering from some bad planning, is certainly not dying.

A draw is a hugely unsatisfactory end to this series. The first test had everything; batting collapses, copious attempts to remove Michael Clarke's head from it's shoulders and wickets aplenty. Despite only lasting three days, mostly due to some ridiculous stroke play from both teams, it was compelling cricket. There was good and bad on both sides; Michael Clarke's fluent 151 in the first innings was overshadowed by his team's complete capitulation in the second innings, with Hashim Amla and Graeme Smith's second innings tons helped South Africa ease to victory. Shane Watson's five-fer was rivalled by debutant Vernon Philander's five-fer. Dale Steyn was as angry as ever; Mitchell Johnson was as wildly variable as ever.

Poking fun at Johnson is feeling more and more like kicking a puppy when it's down. The occasional straight, swinging delivery is indicative of his talent - it's the 5 other balls in the over that are horrendous to watch. His delivery is not the most visually pleasing, nor is the sight of the ball going wide down the leg side every so often. Johnson's continued place in the team is baffling - how long can Australia honestly validate his place in the side?

Michael Clarke constantly gets a kicking in the media, and I'd be lying if I said I was a fan. I personally prefer to remember him like this. Yet his batting in the first test was outstanding. Despite Dale Steyn's one man campaign to give Clarke concussion, he handled the short ball well, with some gorgeous straight drives and cut shots. As Australia (with the exception of Shaun Marsh), fell around him to some ridiculous strokes, Clarke kept his head and played a captain's innings.

All talk in the second test turned to Pat Cummins. At only eighteen - my life has been utterly, utterly wasted compared to his - he took seven wickets on debut, hit the winning runs for Australia and led an attack that in theory should have been head and shoulders above him. But Johnson's inconsistency, Siddle's failure to hit the right lengths and Watson's injury (take your pick which) meant that it fell to Cummins to grab the momentum. After removing De Villiers to end his dangerous partnership with Amla, who again scored a century, Cummins tore through the tail, the highlight being his delivery to Morne Morkel that smashed into his stumps.

Cummins is hugely exciting for Australia, just as Philander is for South Africa. That's not to say that the youngsters had all the fun. Hashim Amla once again proved what a beautiful batsman he is with cover drives galore. Jacques Rudolph, back in the test team after four successful years with Yorkshire, looked to be in good touch, but failed to convert three reasonable starts into a good score. Ricky Ponting came into the final innings under endless media speculation over whether he ought to make this series his last. Despite still not looking entirely comfortable, there were some hints of classic Ponting, including his glorious pull shot, but it would be a shame to see a great batsman end his career on such a down note.

Whether two or six matches long, both sides have come out of this having learnt something. South Africa have plenty to work on, as do Australia. But the promise is there in both sides, be it in the old or new blood. Despite all the debate about test cricket and its supposedly imminent death, both teams have shown that there is plenty of life left in the longer format of the game.