Why do Australia and South Africa seem to bring the best and worst out of each other?
Some of the most memorable performances in the modern era of Test cricket have occurred when the Rainbow Nation tours Down Under, or vice versa. Ricky Ponting’s twin centuries at the SCG, Faf du Plessis’ marathon knock on Test debut in Adelaide and Michael Clarke’s gritty century in Cape Town quickly spring to mind.
And because the two nations live in similar conditions, the home advantage is partially nullified – the cricket is fiercely competitive and rarely one-sided. The Proteas have not lost a Test series on Australian soil in 17 years.
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But their rivalry, albeit entertaining, has been plagued by unpleasant on-field controversies that dominated the front and back of newspapers.
It’s why discussion about the upcoming three-Test series, which gets underway in Brisbane this Saturday, has been centred around simmering tensions between the two sides, rather than the cricket.
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A BRIEF HISTORY
In 1994, Australia bowler Merv Hughes lashed out at a heckling spectator in Johannesburg, smacking the fencing with his bat. During that same Test, the late Shane Warne delivered an abusive tirade at Andrew Hudson after bowling the South African around his legs.
“F**k off. Go on, Hudson, f**k off out of here!” the legendary leg-spinner bellowed.
He was fined by the Australian Cricket Board and relentlessly booed by the crowd for the rest of the match.
In 2014, Australian captain Clarke was accused of calling South African paceman Dale Steyn a “cheat” during the Cape Town Test, a remark that Steyn confessed still peeved him six months later.
Du Plessis said the Australians behaved like a “pack of wild dogs” during that tour, claiming at least one player verbally barked following a dismissal.
“That was definitely the most abuse we’ve got on the cricket field,” Proteas legend AB de Villiers later proclaimed.
“Australia certainly made a conscious effort to be verbally over the top.
“Maybe they felt they could get under us if they really came out and got personal with some of us.
“It was unnecessary.”
Australia had mastered the craft of sledging. The mind games became an integral part of the game.
It was deemed a necessity rather than merely a strategy, and the Australian fanbase joined the charade, with crowd abuse becoming a formality for touring parties.
“When I toured here in 2008, I thought that Australia was the worst place in the world,” South African paceman Morne Morkel told CODE Sports.
“The abuse we got, it was a really tough tour.
“You’d walk in on the mornings of a Test match and you greet an Australian player and they just stare you down. That bully intimidation from day one is how that happened.”
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The rivalry reached a tipping point in 2018, when a sequence of misdemeanours amalgamated towards one of the sport’s biggest controversies of the past decade.
During the first Test in Durban, David Warner and Quinton de Kock almost came to blows in a stairwell following a “vile and disgusting” comment from the South African wicketkeeper about Warner’s wife.
“I responded emotionally and regretted the way it played out,” Warner said at the time.
“But I’ll always stick up for my family.”
In the same match, Nathan Lyon was fined for dropping the match ball onto de Villers’ body after running out the South African. He later apologised.
Warner unleashed a fierce spray on centurion Aiden Markram following the run-out, for which former Proteas captain Graeme Smith branded him a “fool”.
“Australia wanted to bully us … we had to stand up for ourselves,” du Plessis wrote in his book.
The following week, spectators at St George’s Park gleefully degraded Warner’s wife, mocking her with Sonny Bill Williams face masks. South African cricket officials smiled in photos alongside them.
Later in the Durban Test, Proteas quick Kagiso Rabada found himself in hot water for a post-wicket celebration, brushing shoulders with Australian captain Steve Smith.
A repeat offender, Rabada was handed a two-match suspension for the illegal contact, but successfully overturned the ban following a six-hour appeal hearing.
“The contact was harder than it actually looked on the TV,” Smith told reporters at the time.
“Whether it was intentional or not that’s not for me to decide.”
Then in the third Test … well, we all know what happened in Cape Town.
‘GOING TO BE FEISTY’
The ramifications of Sandpapergate are still prevalent within Australian cricket – Warner’s decision to withdraw his appeal to have his lifetime leadership ban overturned cast a shadow over the recent pink-ball Test against the West Indies. The 36-year-old’s manager fanned the flames the following day.
The ball-tampering headlines are seemingly inescapable, but Australian and South African players have unanimously declared there’s no lingering animosity between the two nations.
Several Proteas cricketers have retired since the dramatic 2018 series, including du Plessis, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Morkel, Vernon Philander and de Kock.
Meanwhile, the Australian men’s cricket team has undergone a drastic rebrand, abandoning the win-at-all-costs mentality that contributed to the side’s downfall four years ago.
“Time heals all wounds,’’ Australian opener Usman Khawaja told reporters in Brisbane on Thursday.
“We are a very different Australian cricket team from what we were back then. The way we go about it, the way we play. A lot of the guys have matured as cricketers and humans. They are a bit older, a couple more kids, we play our cricket differently.
“Australian cricket as a whole and as individual players probably hit rock bottom. It gives you a lot of time to reflect on things. Guys have genuinely learnt a lot from that incident.
“I look at where the guys were four years ago and where the guys are now and there has been a lot of growing up.
“I probably got to see it better than most because I was in the team then I went away and came back in and it is a nice change.’’
There may not be any lingering bad blood between the two sides, but you can expect to see plenty of passion and emotion over the coming four weeks.
“It‘s going to be pretty feisty,” Proteas captain Dean Elgar said before departing South Africa earlier this month.
“The individuals they have within their squad are pretty brash and bold – in your face kind of characters and that can work in our favour. I think that plays into our hands. We enjoy that confrontation as a group and we manage it pretty well.
“We‘ve got calm heads around that. If they want to be in your face, it’s fine. I definitely don’t shy away from that and I will be encouraging the players not to shy away from that, because I think that’s when South Africans bring out their best.
“It was extremely juicy (in 2018) even building up to that game in Cape Town. It was interesting times, let‘s put it that way. Hopefully that’s been put to bed now.
“Hopefully there‘s no antics going on on the field that anyone gets busted for. But there’s always a bit of spice. We love playing against Australia. We’ve got a heap of respect for Australian cricket.”
The first Test between Australia and South Africa gets underway at the Gabba on Saturday, with the opening delivery scheduled for 11.20am AEDT.
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