Recently I pointed out how readily cricket statistics lend themselves to misinterpretation, bias, manipulation and downright skulduggery.
A bold, new ball-tampering-free era of Australian cricket had dawned. No Steve Smith, no David Warner, no Cameron Bancroft. In the aftermath of the suspensions of those three, coach Darren Lehmann had resigned.
Also, Mitchell Starc had been struck down by stress fractures, although this was believed to be unrelated.
And yet, senselessly, a hastily-flown-over Glenn Maxwell still found himself relegated to twelfth man duties. I guess sometimes bold, new eras take time to settle into their grooves.
Here are the ratings for the Fourth Test between South Africa and Australia.
Tim Paine became Australia’s 46th Test captain and immediately stamped his influence on the side. He organised for the entire team to shake hands with the South African team before the Test, implicitly pledging a new start in an attempt to leave previous hostility in the past.
A wonderful gesture by Paine, with the important side effect that it also simultaneously proved that none of his team were holding sandpaper.
Paine was also the sole leader of the team, with the selectors naming no vice-captain, presumably as part of Australia’s ongoing bid to eliminate all of the team’s vices.
Showing further sportsmanship, Paine immediately lost the toss, giving South Africa the first opportunity to bat. He also burnt two reviews on overly optimistic challenges and led the applause for Aiden Markram’s highly impressive 152 not out.
But you know who didn’t have much interest in Australia’s bold, new era of being kind to the opposition at all costs? Pat Cummins, that’s who. Twice, Cummins dismissed opposition batsmen first ball to put himself on a hat-trick. The first time, in a show of monstrous disrespect, it was South African captain Faf du Plessis, who shouldered arms to a ball from Cummins that jagged sharply back in. The ball struck du Plessis on the pad, with no shot offered, and even non-striker AB de Villiers agreed he had to go.
Bad enough. But even worse was to come from Cummins, when Morne Morkel arrived at the crease in his final Test. With Temba Bavuma at the non-striker’s end on 95 not out, Cummins immediately found the outside edge of Morkel’s bat, humiliating the big quick and stranding Bavuma five short of a deserved ton.
Appalling behaviour from Cummins, who’d snared himself an obnoxious five-wicket haul in the process. South Africa were all out for 488 but New Australia’s reputation was in tatters.
Having shamefully golden ducked Morkel, Cummins had put himself on a hat-trick when South Africa batted next. But this was an Australian side no longer willing to tolerate trickery of any kind on the cricket field, and so the top order immediately set about scuttling the fast bowler’s nefarious schemes.
They would deny Cummins the chance to take a hat-trick by the simple technique of collapsing so emphatically that South Africa might not even need to bat again. Indeed, in a little over a session, they managed to collapse to 6-110.
Magnificent stuff from the Australian batting unit, in particular the returnees Joe Burns, Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb, who made 12 runs between them. You don’t get much nicer than that.
Batting for declarations
Alas, a 99-run partnership between Cummins and Paine and an injury to Morkel soon put an end to any plans of South Africa enforcing the follow-on.
Instead, they batted again, and with a deliberate unhurriedness designed solely to annoy the television commentators who began to slowly realise they wouldn’t be able to get a golf game in on Day 5 after all.
The South African lead stretched beyond 400, 500, 600. And still they refused to declare. Oh, sure, some people tried to justify it by pointing out that South Africa were up 2-1 in the series and had zero incentive to give Australia even the tiniest sliver of hope of levelling it. Or that all three of South Africa’s bowlers were allegedly injured to some degree. Or that there was plenty of time remaining in the Test to bowl Australia out.
But the refusal to declare was still a slap in the face to all those wild, risk-taking Proteas sides we’ve come to know and love over the years.
If only cricket had some kind of mechanism by which Australia could have somehow forced the South African side to stop batting.
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Eventually, at tea on the fourth day, South Africa did finally declare, setting Australia 612 to win or four sessions to survive.
Could Australia manage either of these feats?
No. They collapsed for 119 in 46.4 overs to lose by 492 runs.
But at least they played the game in the proper spirit, restoring pride in the baggy green. If we’ve learnt anything over the past week, it’s that cricket fans in Australia would much rather have their side lose in the proper way than cheat and bully their way to victory.
Magnificent to see New Australia thrive in this way. And I give it, oh, let’s say, five Tests of this niceness before those same fans start calling for a fresh injection of ‘mongrel’ into the team.
And then we can start the entire cycle again.