South Africa starts the forthcoming series played on its own red soil as red-hot favourites to beat the Australians and thereby replace them at the top of the Test rankings.
Of course it is never quite as easy as that. Suddenly a young team must carry a weight of expectation. And it was close last time, with all three matches swinging back and forth before eventfully finding their victor. By many reckonings it was the most compelling series staged in Australia since the 1960-61 calypso confrontation. South Africa did prevail but it was a close-run thing. Not that the success itself was an upset, let alone a fluke. Graeme Smith's outfit had been playing solid cricket for 18 months and, like England in 2005, went into the series with plenty of hard-earned confidence. Now the challenge is to retain the passion that carried Smith's side through so many awkward positions Down Under. England blew that part.
Already the excitement is mounting, with the usual exchanges of pleasantries between rival leaders. Apparently advance bookings have been exceptional and the sense of anticipation is palpable. It's been a long time since the locals smelt Australian blood. For some reason Australians cause something akin to apoplexy amongst locals, especially those least travelled. At times the desire to beat them has been so strong that is has become crippling. To a fault, South Africa has measured itself against this opponent.
It is an unfair comparison. In so many ways Australia has an easier time of it. Certainly they are more able to focus on the opposition. South Africa has internal battles to fight as well. A love-hate relationship develops. Many of those most outspoken about Australia end up living there. They resent the regulation and the arrogance, but yearn for the safety, and suddenly advocate the doctrine of the fair go.
In the past South African cricketers have occupied a privileged and yet awkward position. At least these current players know an entire nation stands four-square behind them. Accordingly they are the most relaxed side the country has produced in a long time. It has not always been the case.
In the last 15 years South Africa has changed beyond recognition. In the past, visiting teams were strongly supported by dispossessed, angry locals inclined to regard the national team as the unacceptable by-product of an inequitable system. Barracking for visiting teams was a way of protesting without getting into trouble. Although rumblings are still heard here and there, almost all South Africans these days back their own mob.
After all, anyone can play. And all sorts have taken that chance. Barriers have been broken. Sometimes sport can lead the way because it is concerned with facts and figures, not fear. Previously visitors carried the flame of liberty. Now the home side, with its many faces and voices, is unarguably open. And supporters can sit wherever they like. Even the anthem has changed to include a variety of languages, and it is sung lustily by modern youth and progressive age
Although no nation on earth speaks with a single voice, the relatively peaceful revolution in South Africa reflected in its sport has been an extraordinary feat. Doomsayers were everywhere to be found. South African sport has fared better since the end of isolation than all save the most sanguine dared hope. Recently a notably mixed Bok team claimed the rugby World Cup, repeating the performance of a more old-fashioned team in the previous decade. Furthermore the country has secured the next soccer World Cup, testimony to its willingness to put itself to the test and the respect it commands overseas. By any reckoning these are exceptional achievements for any country, let alone a nation that was so recently a pariah.
Of course it has not been all boerwors and koeksisters. South Africa barely made a mark at the recent Olympics, while its soccer team struggles even on its own continent: locals fear their side will be eliminated in the first round of the 2010 World Cup. Still, overall the record survives scrutiny and tells of widespread goodwill and the release of latent talent. Curiously, sports once regarded as the preserve of the protected population have prospered, including cricket and rugby. Perhaps prejudice is easier to overcome than inefficiency.
Not that cricket was ever merely a white man's game in Africa, let alone anywhere else. Although discouraged by lack of opportunity in their own backyard, aspiring cricketers from the scorned communities need only look across the oceans to realise that the game was dominated by black and brown players. Accordingly Indian, black and coloured populations had teams to support, players to copy. Nor could enthusiasm be crushed. After all, it is a fine game. Cricket continued to be played in the worst years, at any rate in the areas where it had already taken hold, especially among subcontinental communities in Durban, by coloured families in the Eastern Cape.
Certainly the white population enjoyed many advantages, with pristine school ovals, dedicated coaches, plush clubs to join, and the hope of higher honours. The best players could pit their skills against highly paid rebel teams invited for that purpose. In the winter they could go to England to play for counties or in the Northern Leagues. But the rest did not give up, formed their own leagues and bodies and kept playing and always wondering what it all meant, how they'd go against the in crowd. Basil D'Oliveira's success with Worcestershire was crucial because it reassured the trampled that their cricket was competitive, their records were relevant, their old champions were justifiably admired. Of course the point has been reinforced umpteen times subsequently, not least in Perth and Melbourne in the last series.
In the past, visiting teams were strongly supported by dispossessed, angry locals inclined to regard the national team as the unacceptable by-product of an inequitable system. But these days almost all South Africans back their own mob
In so many ways, and to many people, South Africa's trip to Australia counted amongst the most heartwarming events they had witnessed. Naturally, supporters were delighted with the results, as a fine and popular touring team displayed an uncommon combination of tenacity and skill. Yet the satisfaction to be gained from the tour reached beyond sport. It signalled the arrival of a new and better adjusted generation. It indicated that it was possible to be a proud and cosmopolitan South African. It was an expression of hope, a statement of potential. It was the lighting of a candle.
South African cricket has faced an immense task, nothing less than the reconstruction of a game without calamitous upheavals. Of course it is the same challenge faced by the nation. Economic and social obstacles had to be overcome. Attitudes had to be confronted and changed. Whites were frustrated by unfair selections and argued that blacks only wanted to play soccer. Indians seemed reluctant to get their hands dirty. Blacks seemed to want to eat the cake without baking it. Positions were fixed. Cricket could easily have been lost between the patronising and the political.
Transformation was the inevitable product of a country seeking radical change without bloodshed. Argument raged about its merits. Pessimism prevailed. Like so many things, though, transformation was not inherently right or wrong. Intelligently applied, it could produce a genuinely South African team. Foolishly imposed, it could turn the game into a sideshow. It was all a question of judgment.
Besides its brilliant victories, the great achievement of Smith's team has been to demonstrate the cricket is alive and well in their country and that a side led by an Englishman and sometimes an Afrikaner, managed by coloureds, coached by a rooinek and featuring many industrious but not unduly earnest youngsters from all quarters could outwit and outplay the strongest team in the world. Heck, the fastest bowler is from the back blocks.
For so long, too long, cricketers emerged from the major schools. Now the game has been democratised. Now South Africa is using all its resources. It is possible for a humbly raised white boy from a remote outpost to make his mark, to bat almost an entire day in front of a vast MCG crowd. Heck, South Africa has come so far that a batsman as accomplished as Ashwell Prince can be left out by selectors eager to back the incumbents.
It is a truly South African team. Long may it last. Now it must take the next step. The challenger has put the champion on the floor. Now South Africa must show that it has the conviction and capacity to take his place.