Of course, there is a gulf between the nations’ histories but, when it comes to sporting make-up, there is more than a little shared DNA – encompassing a grim determination, taciturn manner and hard-edged competitiveness forged in long, hot afternoons out in the middle. Accordingly, both sets of supporters prize cussedness over flamboyance.
Since South Africa were re-integrated in 1992, Australia has held the whip-hand, winning 18 of the 30 Tests between the two countries. This series, though, will begin with the hosts as warm favourites – they have lost just one series in the past five years, while Australia will be hoping to rebound from a painful Ashes defeat. Formlines are unlikely to mean much once the cricket starts, though; a cursory skim through the highlights reel revealing that encounters between these two sides often produce the unexpected.
Fanie routs Aussies: January 1994
During South Africa’s first post-apartheid tour Down Under, Shane Warne’s 12-wicket haul left the hosts poised to take a 1-0 lead, Australia chasing 117 for victory in the second Test at the SCG. But an inspired spell from Fanie de Villiers (main image) triggered an alarming collapse, Australia losing 9-60 to slump to defeat by five runs. Although Australia recovered to draw the series, De Villiers’s seminal performance crowned South Africa’s return to the world stage.
Advantage Australia: February 1997
The first two post-apartheid series between Australia and South Africa ended in closely fought draws, so, in 1997, there was everything to play for. In the first Test at the Wanderers, South Africa made 302 batting first and Australia stuttered to 4-174, before Steve Waugh and Greg Blewett combined for a 385-run stand, a record between the sides. Australia won the match by an innings and 196 runs, before wrapping up the series in Port Elizabeth. The advantage was seized and Australia would not relinquish it for more than 11 years.
Warne owns Cullinan: 1994-97
The mythic status of the game’s greatest spin bowler was built on his performances against England and South Africa and, in particular, on his mastery of poor old Darryl Cullinan, who had no idea how to face Warne’s bowling. During an otherwise successful career, Cullinan was dismissed four times by Warne in Tests and eight times in ODIs, the South African reduced to attending a sports psychologist to help overcome the demons of self-doubt conjured by Warne.
Proteas choke: June 1999
At the 1999 World Cup, Australia faced the Proteas in a must-win Super Six match and, against all odds, Steve Waugh’s 120* got his side over the line. The two teams met again in a remarkable drawn semi-final. It came down to the last over – South Africa were nine down but some brilliant hitting from Lance Klusener brought them level before, inexplicably, Alan Donald ran himself out off the final ball. The split points put Australia through to the final, where they thrashed Pakistan.
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One magical summer: 2001-02
The peak of Australia’s golden era came in the summer of 2001-02, when South Africa arrived with a spring in their step, before the Australian jackboot came down hard. Matthew Hayden dominated with the bat, while Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath ran riot with the ball, as Australia romped to a 3-0 series win. Then, on the return leg to South Africa, Australia set up another series win by humiliating the Proteas at the Wanderers in the first Test, prevailing by an innings and 360 runs on the back of a blistering double-century from Adam Gilchrist.
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The famous chase: March 2006
When Australia, batting first in the deciding rubber of a five-match ODI series in South Africa, finished 4-434 after their allotted overs, it seemed another feather in the cap for an all-conquering side. No team had ever passed 400 runs in an innings before. It was utterly unfathomable that South Africa could make a fist of the run-chase, but they did exactly that, overhauling Australia’s record total with one wicket and one ball to spare. Simply, the greatest ever ODI match.
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Saffas break the spell: December 2008
The Proteas still needed to produce some remarkable batting performances to turn Australia over for the first time in nearly 40 years. First, in Perth, the Proteas chased 414 in the second innings to secure an unlikely win. Then, in Melbourne, an incredible 180-run, ninth-wicket stand between JP Duminy and Dale Steyn put South Africa on top – they then bowled Australia out cheaply and knocked off a modest target to clinch the series. It was the first time in 15 years that Australia had lost a Test series on home soil.
Johnson burns brightly, briefly: March 2009
Even in the series loss to South Africa, Mitchell Johnson came to play, claiming 8-61 in Perth – a record innings-haul between the sides. On the return leg to South Africa, though, Johnson was near unplayable, working over South Africa’s top order and even smashing an unbeaten century at Newlands. Given subsequent events, Australia’s win and Johnson’s performance seem aberrations. But, given the eventful history between the two sides, who would bet against a similar reversal this time around?