Ask any Australian cricket fan, player, umpire or beleaguered weekend scorer, and they’ll tell you the most famous rivalry is the Ashes.
The history, the prestige, the atmosphere … you’d be a fool to argue otherwise.
India is often one of the exciting build-ups because either team winning away from home happens so rarely, plus the Virat Kohli of it all, and Australia’s enormous Indian diaspora that makes for excellent crowds.
But if we really think about the past decade, South Africa should hold a special place in the heart of every Australian cricket fan.
It’s not always a warm place in the heart, but it’s always intriguing at the very least when the men’s teams collide.
In a Test cricket climate where winning away from home seems as rare as a cow that’s still mooing, the shamefully as yet unnamed series between Australia and South Africa is an outlier.
Only once in eight outings since 2005 has a home team actually won a Test series, and that was the Proteas in 2018 (and we’ll get to how that happened).
Unlike a journey to the overcast skies and Dukes balls of England, or a trip to the dusty, cracking decks of the subcontinent, the conditions are similar enough between Australia and South Africa that a tour for either team doesn’t feel like you’re landing in an alien environment.
So, rather than one side wrestling with the conditions while the other shouts ‘yeah, you better run’ from behind the safety of their country’s weather, and pitches created by friendly groundskeepers, almost every series is a proper contest between the teams.
We could go back further to Mitchell Johnson destroying South Africa, and specifically Graeme Smith’s hand, in 2008. Or a 20-year-old Phillip Hughes scoring twin tons in his second Test in 2009. Or Johnson belting a stunning century in a losing effort in the next game.
But let’s stick to the past five series, which have offered more than enough drama to last a lifetime of rivalries.
2011: Cape Town and Cummins
Because 43 of Pat Cummins’s 44 Test matches have come in the past five years, it can be easy to forget just how long ago he made his debut.
We all know he was young. We all know he spent the next few years injured. But 2011 really does feel like another time. And for the Australian men’s Test team, it was.
Still treading water and desperately trying to touch the bottom after the retirements of Warne, McGrath, Hayden, Langer and Gilchrist, Australia was in the infancy of Michael Clarke’s captaincy and the twilight years of Ricky Ponting’s career when they travelled to South Africa for two Tests in November 2011.
The pieces were there, with Hughes, Shaun Marsh, Nathan Lyon and Ryan Harris all in the early days of their careers, with David Warner, Mitchell Starc and Usman Khawaja’s debuts just months away, but none of that helped Australia in the series opener in Cape Town.
After Clarke scored 151 of 284 runs in the first dig, and Shane Watson’s reverse swing skittled the Proteas for 96 in the second, Australia was bowled out for 47 in 18 overs in their second innings.
It was the lowest Test score by an Australian men’s side since 1902, with only Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon’s 26-run stand for the last wicket preventing them from the worst outing ever.
After that eight-wicket loss, Australia needed a win to draw the series and retain bragging rights, but would have to do so without the oft-injured Harris.
An 18-year-old New South Welshman was named to replace him. Showing pace, accuracy, seam and swing, Cummins took 6-79 in the second innings against a stacked batting line-up and then hit the winning runs in a 310-run chase for another famous and exciting victory in Johannesburg.
2012: Du Plessis’s marathon debut
The first of three Tests in Australia in 2012 ended in a draw when Australia couldn’t take 10 wickets in a tight 68 overs at the Gabba. But 148 at the Adelaide Oval should have been plenty of time.
Especially once four wickets fell in the opening 21 overs, bringing a debutant to the crease, right?
Alongside AB de Villiers’s scintillating 33 off 220, future captain Faf du Plessis was simply immovable for his unbeaten 110 off 376 balls.
Without injured spearhead James Pattinson, an attack of Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon (aided though they were by Clarke, Ponting and Rob Quiney) fell two wickets short of victory.
In the final Test in Perth, South Africa captain Graeme Smith surprised the retiring Ricky Ponting with a guard of honour on his way out to the crease, which has since become commonplace for retiring greats.
2014: The great forgotten series
Hot on the heels of the Mitchell Johnson-led sweep of the 2013/14 Ashes series, Australia travelled to South Africa for three games.
Jacques Kallis sadly played his last Test a couple of months earlier, but otherwise, all the modern stars were there — Clarke, Johnson, Harris, Warner, Watson, Lyon, Smith (Steve) for the Australians; De Villiers, Steyn, Morkel, Philander, Amla, Du Plessis, Smith (Graeme) for South Africa. And they were almost all in something resembling their primes, making for a contest of elite fast bowling vs top-level batting.
Johnson carried his Ashes form into the series with 7-68 and 5-59 as he led Australia to victory in the first Test, while Warner scored 543 with three tons at 90.5 for the series in the one country where he has a strong touring record.
In a series that was all about straight up-and-down great cricket, perhaps the highlight was Clarke’s 161 with a broken shoulder to set up victory in the decider in Cape Town.
Alex Doolan was also there.
2016: South Africa knocks Australia into a rebuild
A strong Australian side perhaps cashed in on some easier series in late 2014 to 2016.
In fact, Australia hadn’t lost a Test on home soil since 2012 (against South Africa) as they prepared to face off with the Proteas once more in 2016.
The lack of competition aided an explosion of interest in the Big Bash, while Adam Voges cashed in so aggressively that he had a batting average so high that historians would struggle to explain it in 40 years’ time.
It all came crashing down in the space of a couple of days in Hobart.
After losing the first Test in Perth, Australia travelled to Bellerive Oval hopeful of turning things around, but overcast skies prompted the tourists to boldly send Australia in to bat and it worked a treat.
Australia was all out 33 overs and 85 runs later, with Steve Smith’s 48 not out the only double-digit score in the first dig.
Despite only scoring a decent 326 in their first innings and losing an entire day to rain, South Africa won by an innings and 80 runs before lunch on day four.
Showing real leadership qualities for perhaps the first time during and after the match, Smith spoke passionately about how they needed major change. It ended the Test careers of Adam Voges, Peter Nevill, and even debutants Callum Ferguson and Joe Mennie as the team got a total revamp in the search for “ugly runs”.
Peter Handscomb, Nic Maddinson and classical young Queenslander Matt Renshaw got brought into the side for the last Test of the series, which Australia comfortably won under lights at the Adelaide Oval.
An Australian journalist was also shirt-fronted by a member of South Africa’s support staff when trying to question Faf du Plessis after the South Africa captain was cited for ball-tampering with a mint.
For shame, Faf.
South Africa won it 3-1. Well played, lads.
Here are the Cliffs Notes:
- Australia won the first Test thanks to a devastating spell of reverse swing from Mitchell Starc, prompting some to raise ball-tampering suspicions about the tape on David Warner’s hands in the field.
- Quinton de Kock and David Warner clashed on the way to the dressing rooms after de Kock made remarks about Warner’s family.
- Kagiso Rabada was lucky to avoid a ban for excessive wicket celebrations and a bump on Smith.
- All hell broke loose when Cameron Bancroft was caught ball tampering with sandpaper in the third Test in Cape Town.
- In the aftermath, Tim Paine became captain. Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb got their second Protea-induced call-up, as did Joe Burns, sporting a very not-quite-ready-for-prime-time beard. They land just in time for the last Test, which Australia loses by 492 runs.
So yeah, a bit of drama.
ABC Sport will have live blog and radio coverage when the Australia vs South Africa Test series resumes in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG.