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A look back at South Africa’s 2005/06 Test tour of Australia

Australia v South Africa

When South Africa toured Australia for a 3 Test series in the 2005/06 season, they had been playing each other long enough that a narrative could be employed by media and fans as part of the buildup. And this narrative was simple enough: for all their toughness and talent, South Africa always lost their nerve when it counted against Australia.
This probably started during the 1997/98 one-day tri-series in Australia when South Africa dominated the qualifying matches beating Australia in all four contests, sometimes embarrassingly easily. Yet in the leadup to the best-of-three finals, Steve Waugh publicly needled South Africa as being chokers when it counted and when Australia won the finals series (after losing the opening match), this reputation took hold.

And that reputation was fully cemented during the head-to-head battles in the 1999 ODI World Cup, which would require their own separate article to fully document. By the mid-2000s with South Africa never having defeated Australia in any head-to-head ODI or Test series since readmission, the issue of Australia’s mental dominance over South Africa was inevitably going to be brought up in the leadup.

Perhaps anticipating this, young South African captain Graeme Smith went on the front foot in his public statements before the series began, not only talking up Australia’s vulnerability after their 2005 Ashes defeat but suggesting sledging would be a key part of the series, going as far as to say that they had employed a “consultant” on the topic to deal with it and that they would be disappointed if sledging to occur.

While it was tough talk, in truth this seemed like a lot of fake bluster from a youthful captain who probably privately knew his side didn’t have the talent and experience to beat a great Australian side on their home turf. And Shane Warne (a master of mind games) – sensed it, publicly stating that the South Africans were again full of too much talk pre-series and they should concentrate on the issues with their own side.

The stage had been truly set and once again, Australia was the victor with a 2-0 series victory.
In truth, all things considered South Africa put up an admirable fight this series. For one thing, not only were they playing against a great Australian side, but a side even more motivated than usual after their surprise 2005 Ashes defeat. Of the next six series Australia played post-Ashes 2005, this was the only one they didn’t win every Test in, and that’s not including their win in a one-off ‘SuperTest’ against a World XI.

As well, this South African touring squad was arguably the weakest from a talent perspective that have toured Australia since readmission. There were too many players who were either talented but too raw (AB De Villiers), past their best (Shaun Pollock) or who never made it at Test Level (Johan Botha).

Indeed a strong case could be made that the bowling lineup South Africa had for the final Test in Sydney – Pollock, Langeveldt, Nel, Botha – was the weakest South Africa have provided in a Test against Australia since readmission. On top of this Smith himself had a dismal time with the bat as his technical deficiencies were exposed and he failed to reach 50 once on tour.

When you factor all this in, that South Africa going into the final day of the series was a chance of drawing it was an admirable effort.

As for Australia, there were some warning signs of the struggles that would come later in the decade as some of the newer players brought in weren’t of the incredibly high standard that people had come to expect from Australian sides over the previous decade. With so many key players close to the end, an Australian side merely very good instead of all-time-great wasn’t far away.

But one new player who proved himself up to the high standards was middle-order batsman Mike Hussey. A decade of playing first-class cricket as well as ODI cricket had made him the multi-faceted cricketer perfect for the modern age. As a long-time opener, he had an excellent defensive technique that enabled him to stonewall for long periods when the situation arose. But he had also developed his strokeplay (which had made him a fixture in the ODI lineup) where he could score boundaries to any section of the ground if the situation required it. As well he was an excellent runner between wickets and judge of quick singles.

These abilities were best illustrated in the 2nd Test in Melbourne when Australia had wasted a good start to be 9/248 early on the 2nd day with Hussey joined by noted bunny Glenn McGrath. But due to his innumerable skills, he was able to manufacture a 107 run partnership in what was the pivotal partnership of the series.

Another key player for Australia was Brett Lee. After coasting on his reputation as a pace bowler for years and letting his bowling average climb well over 30, Lee began to finally fulfil his promise in this summer. With Jason Gillespie omitted from the side, Lee took on the new ball responsibility and seemed to relish the challenge as he was consistently outstanding all series as he finally mastered the balance between pace and accuracy.

So it was yet another tour of Australia for South Africa where they came up empty-handed and that elusive series win seemed further away than ever. How long would they have to wait? Only time would tell.

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