Australia won and took the series; South Africa went home after being so near and yet so far. But the losers should take heart; they have shared one of the greatest Tests of recent times and given Test cricket a much-needed shot in the arm. Give us a couple more like this and more people will be clamouring for the five-day game. That it was over in four days really doesn't matter.
The first Test seemed to be between a shell-shocked home team and an Australian team who were on a roll after beating the West Indies. This time, there were two evenly matched teams and the match was a contest in every sense of the word. That Australia clawed their way back after falling for 108 in their first innings is testimony to the fact that when they need a man for the hour they can always dig deep in their ranks and find one. The one they did come up with was the stylish, laidback Mark Waugh who made his best century in Test cricket, bettering the one which he made against the West Indies in 1995 when he shared a double-century stand with his twin.
What made this Test special was the fact that nobody gave up. Australia could well have assumed a defeatist mode after conceding a 100-run lead but they did not. South Africa could have done the same thing at various points of the Australian run-chase but they did not.They fought the good fight to the end. There was a great deal of thinking captaincy on display which stands out in sharp contrast to the way India played it in Trinidad. Nobody was standing around here and waiting for things to happen; no, people were making them happen right through. It was a duel to the death, no quarter was asked and none given.
The absence of Shaun Pollock meant that South Africa were a vital bowler short but they did not let it dampen their spirits. They must be given credit for the way they fought tooth and nail, refusing to bow even when it all seemed plain sailing for Australia with 12 runs needed and five wickets standing. Cronje never lost his nerve, using Kallis skillfully and himself towards the end. It could still have gone either way but this was Australia's day. The wicket wasn't easy to bat on and Australia were chasing a total which has never been achieved on this ground and therefore what Taylor's boys did must be seen in this light as well. That makes the victory all that more creditable.
About the only blemish was caused by a man who normally does a competent job -- umpire Srinivasan Venkataraghavan, the former Indian off-spinner. He did not notice Gillespie over-stepping when he got Cullinan; the same happened when McGrath got Gibbs. He may well have given South Africa a dismissal the same way but Cullinan put down a snick from Mark Waugh after Donald had gone over the line. There can be just one reason for this -- the overdose of cricket is taking its toll on the umpires too and Venkat has just come off a five-Test series in Australia. Those who cry for more matches and spreading the game must realise that poor officiating can kill a game. The football World Cup final of 1990 is the best example which comes to mind.
Years ago, the late Sir Frank Worrell led the West Indies on a tour of Australia and the first Test ended in a memorable tie. That was a tour which did a great deal for the game as the West Indies proved to be excellent ambassadors for their nations and the game. The standard of the game was uniformly high, players turned in performances that ranked among the best and the Australians gave the Windies a ticker-tape farewell. One cannot hope for such heights again -- not with the type of behaviour which Shane Warne indulged in. But the teams have given back something to the game through this Test which was everything a Test should be.
Come the final one, Brett Schultz will be filling in for Pollock; South Africa need a win here if only to remind themselves that they are still a good team. McMillan may be out. If the words of Neil Harvey and Kim Hughes have any influence on the selectors then Mark Taylor would have to be out as well. The series has been won but anything like this would only be a case of shooting oneself in the foot. This man's leadership is, to a lareg extent, responsible for taking Australia to a peak where they can legitimately claim to be the best Test team. The selectors nearly messed up things during the summer by the frequent chopping and changing; better sense should prevail now.