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Wisden Almanack 2023

Australia v South Africa in 2022/23 – Almanack report

Australia with trophy after home Test series of 2022/23 v South Africa
by Geoff Lemon 15 minute read

South Africa toured Australia in 2022/23 for three Test matches, a series Australia claimed 2-0. Geoff Lemon’s report originally appeared in the 2023 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

This three-Test series was billed as a heavyweight bout, with Australia top of the World Test Championship, and South Africa second. The South Africans, meanwhile, had won here on each of their last three visits, a feat matched only by England in the 1880s and West Indies in the 1980s. And then there was 2017-18, Australia’s spiteful trip the other way, which began with nearfisticuffs between the players, moved to sandpaper ball-tampering and a coverup plot, and ended in a 3–1 thrashing and an implosion that ultimately cost the jobs of everyone at the top of Australian cricket.

But by late 2022, the South African team were teetering on the edge. AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock had all retired from Tests; Aiden Markram had fallen from favour. Their previous series had been a chastening trip to England, where they were bowled out four times in a row for under 180. Their batting line-up arrived in Australia featuring three players with Test averages below 20, three below 30, and no one averaging more than captain Dean Elgar’s 38 – a figure that would drop by the end of the series, reflecting a team never in the contest. Even an attack as impressive as South Africa’s, with four pace options plus quality spin, needed to be backed up by runs.


For Australia, after nearly five years, the sandpaper story still bubbled: David Warner had just abandoned an attempt to end his lifetime captaincy ban, unhappy when a panel of legal experts said the hearing would be public, and would revisit the original offence. Some felt the punishment had been excessive, but his claim of remorse and rehabilitation seemed to contradict the insistence his testimony be kept secret. Cricket Australia’s biggest failing in 2018 had been trying to limit reputational damage with a circumscribed investigation in which no one gave a full public account; lack of disclosure meant the story stayed alive.

South Africa’s board, meanwhile, had all but gone broke since 2018, and shed administrators. Financial salvation now depended on the new domestic T20 league, bought by IPL franchises. The tournament overlapped with the one-day series in Australia scheduled after the Tests, so Cricket South Africa forfeited it. There was a hint of payback, since Cricket Australia had called off a Test visit in 2021, citing pandemic concerns. However, South Africa’s forfeiture increased the chances they would have to go through a qualification tournament for the 50-over World Cup in 2023.

Although they had a potent attack, spearheaded by the scorchingly quick Anrich Nortje, their batting problems were obvious. They started with a two-day defeat at Brisbane, where the first of three feisty half-centuries by Travis Head gave Australia a slender advantage, pressed home by Pat Cummins, the captain, who took five wickets as the tourists dissolved for 99. Warner’s 200 at Melbourne, in his 100th Test, showed up South Africa’s insipid first-innings total of 189, and only bad weather in Sydney prevented a probable whitewash. Four Australian batsmen collected centuries, while South Africa’s highest score was just 65. Kagiso Rabada did take 11 wickets for the visitors, one behind Cummins, but their first-choice spinner Keshav Maharaj was innocuous, finishing with 1-260.

Overall, it was quite the mismatch. The question was how South Africa could possibly find a path back to the top in Test cricket, given they had only four more matches planned for the rest of 2023, and no series of more than two games until 2026.

South Africa touring party: D Elgar (c), T Bavuma, GW Coetzee, TB de Bruyn, SJ Erwee, SR Harmer, M Jansen, H Klaasen, KA Maharaj, LT Ngidi, AA Nortje, K Rabada, HE van der Dussen, K Verreynne, LB Williams, K Zondo. Coach: M Maketa.

GA Stuurman was originally selected, but was ruled out by an abdominal strain and replaced by Williams. De Bruyn returned home before the third Test for the birth of his first child.

First Test at Brisbane, December 17-18, 2022: Australia won by six wickets

Australia 12pts. Toss: Australia.

Brief, boisterous, thrilling. Decades of batting boredom on dry, flat surfaces seemed to be washed away by a torrent in Brisbane, where the First Test was wrapped up well inside two days. That had happened in Australia only once before, when Bert Ironmonger and Don Bradman demolished West Indies at Melbourne in 1930/31.

Where green pitches at the Gabba have historically favoured batting, a wet spring had left this one full of moisture on the first day, creating indentations that hardened, to cause steep bounce and lateral movement on the second. The pitch collected a demerit point from match referee Richie Richardson, but the batters who got its measure showed it was playable, and the spectators who flocked in – more than 29,000 on the first day, the biggest non-Ashes crowd at the Gabba – were gripped by every delivery.

South Africa’s bowling looked special. Rabada was high-class, and Nortje clocked 96mph. Ngidi was a quality deputy who hit the pitch hard, Jansen a giant left-armer who could swing the ball and use the bat. Maharaj was an experienced left-arm spinner, with Simon Harmer in the wings, back on international duty after years dominating county cricket with his off-breaks for Essex.

Australia had claims to be even better, despite a side strain for Josh Hazlewood: his replacement was Boland, a 33-year-old veteran with a young Test career – four matches, 21 wickets at 10. Then came the support bowler, Green, who could also nudge 88mph. South Africa’s only hope on seeing the juiced-up pitch was to protect their fragile batting, and bowl first. But the coin fell Cummins’s way; Elgar unconvincingly insisted he would have batted anyway. Minutes later he was out, gloving Starc down leg. Cummins hit a perfect line and length to draw van der Dussen’s edge, paving the way for Boland’s signature move of multiple wickets in an over – Erwee caught in the gully, Zondo hit in front of middle stump: 27-1 had become 27-4.

With disaster looming, Verreynne countered with flair. In 11 previous Tests, he had only once reached 40, but now he took on the short ball, cutting Green for six. Bavuma offered composed company in a partnership worth 98. It gave South Africa hope, but Starc made Bavuma chop on after lunch, opening the door to three rapid wickets for Lyon; even he obtained some serious bounce. Verreynne fell at slip to Smith’s 52nd catch off Lyon, breaking the Australian fielder/bowler record of Mark Taylor and Shane Warne. The first collapse was bookended by a second, of 6-27.

South Africa were back in the game when Warner fended the first ball of Australia’s reply to short leg, his second golden duck in 181 Test innings. Labuschagne and Khawaja could do little but feed the slips. But from 27-3, Head ripped the game away with a stunning attack, reaching 78 from 77 balls by the close, having added 69 in eight overs with Smith after the final drinks break. As the stunned South Africans lost their line, Head cashed in on width. Nortje recovered with an incredible nip-backer to take Smith’s middle stump, then nightwatchman Boland nicked one in the final over, but Australia ended the day five down and only seven runs behind. Head fell for 92 next morning, as the last five tumbled for 37.

Even so, their lead of 66 proved almost enough, as they raced through South Africa for 99. Again the innings was a collapse sandwich: the first three wickets for five runs, a partnership of 42 between Bavuma and Zondo, then six for 22, before Zondo teed off to add 30 for the last wicket with Ngidi. Starc took his 300th Test wicket, Lyon winkled out Bavuma, and Boland had another double-wicket over. Cummins wrapped up the tail to finish with five.

Australia needed just 34, so when Khawaja slapped to point and Warner edged to slip, the wickets seemed token. But when Smith edged behind, and Head gloved his first ball down leg, Rabada had four for 13, and it looked an opportunity lost for South Africa. Even another 50 runs might have changed the result. The pitch’s bounce helped and harmed the visitors, with three short balls from Rabada and Nortje sailing over Verreynne’s head for sets of five wides, the last finishing the match as manically and bizarrely as it deserved.

Player of the Match: TM Head.

Second Test at Melbourne, December 26-29, 2022: Australia won by an innings and 182 runs

Australia 12pts. Toss: Australia.

Come Boxing Day, attention was on David Warner, and not just because this was his 100th Test. At 36, after a year of modest returns, following two with barely a match, another quiet fortnight would have put pressure on him to make Sydney a hometown farewell. Instead, he responded in deeply testing conditions, absorbing spells from Nortje as hot as the weather, and finished with a double-century. By close of play on December 27, there was no doubt he would be around a while longer.

Cummins again won the toss and bowled, in what turned out to be a masterful reading of conditions. With the second day forecast to be 37°C, but the first and third in the low twenties, He gambled that, given early life in the pitch, a good bowling performance would mean South Africa fielding in the heat.

It worked perfectly. With Josh Hazlewood not yet match-fit, Boland kept his place, coaxing an edge from Erwee, before squeezing through Elgar’s defence to hit the stumps – but without disturbing a bail. De Bruyn, who was in for Rassie van der Dussen, slogged Green across the line, providing a high catch. Elgar created a statistical footnote, becoming the fourth (after Kapil Dev, Alastair Cook and Jonny Bairstow) to reach 5,000 Test runs without being run out – but then ran himself out as he chanced a single, with his tally on 5,002. Bavuma nicked Starc’s next ball, before Zondo hit him to cover. Shortly after lunch it was 67-5. Again there was one partnership, with fifties for Verreynne, who looked good once more, and the lofty Jansen, who survived some bruising short stuff. When they nicked off in quick succession, Green charged through the lower order for his first Test five-for. On a good track, South Africa were all out for 189.

Warner would better that on his own, reaching the close on 32, then batting through much of the oven-like second day. His main foe was Nortje, who shrugged off an unexpected assault in the middle session, when he was clobbered by Spidercam (the operator was stood down for the rest of the match). “We’ve spoken earlier about how low it is,” said Nortje. “I don’t think it should be travelling at head height. It just knocked the shoulder, and the elbow is a bit sore, but otherwise I’m OK.”

The shock did not stop Nortje producing what Warner – whose game had seemed to be declining against genuine pace – thought were among the fastest spells he had ever faced. He dodged short balls, got forward when full, and occasionally took on width. Mostly, he did what South Africa didn’t want: hit the gaps, raced up and down (including two all-run fours), and rotated the strike so the fielders kept having to swap over for the right-handers. Labuschagne’s run-out was the only wicket in more than two sessions, and Warner’s partnership of 239 with Smith was the best of their long shared career.

Smith collected a few boundaries between periods of occupation, and it was against the run of play when, on 85, an attempted upper-cut flew to gully. Nortje followed up by breaking Green’s finger against the bat handle, sending him bloodied from the field. Shortly before that, a drenched and dusty Warner had retired with cramp after collapsing while trying to jump in the air to celebrate his double-hundred.

It was a frenetic last hour. Head smashed tired bowlers, and continued next morning, when he reached his fifty, but was bowled by Nortje next ball. Warner returned, but his first ball back was a swinging yorker that went from pad to stumps. Cummins soon nicked Rabada, and Lyon battered 25 including a hooked six. Then, surprisingly, Green reappeared too. Despite a finger that X-rays later showed was in two pieces, he batted another 45 overs for 51 not out, a defensive wall that allowed Carey to play a one-day innings. He showed his range in a maiden Test century, accumulating busily in between pulling boundaries or lashing length balls through cover off the top of the bounce. With Green unable to bowl, and Starc having injured a finger while fielding, Australia wanted to bat only once, which meant a tea-time declaration on the third day with a lead of 386.

Rain meant South Africa faced only seven overs that evening, but they were still done by tea on the fourth. Elgar gloved down leg again, in the second over. Starc bowled despite his injury, trousers dotted with blood from the busted fingertip, and nearly took off Erwee’s toes with a yorker. Boland kept hitting the seam, giving Smith his 150th Test catch. Bavuma batted well but ran disastrously, doing in Zondo and Maharaj. Lyon claimed three, and Smith finished things off with a rare wicket. By then, Ngidi’s late hitting had inched his team past 200 for the first time in eight attempts, but that was scant consolation after an innings defeat that emphatically ended South Africa’s winning streak in Australia.

Player of the Match: DA Warner.

Third Test at Sydney, January 4-8, 2023: Drawn

Australia 4pts. South Africa 4pts. Toss: Australia.

As so often in Sydney, weather and a sleepy pitch played a big part in the result – a draw, after the loss of nearly two days to rain. The major gains were in fundraising for the McGrath Foundation breast cancer charity, which did a roaring trade to secure over $A5m while everybody was waiting to see whether the covers were coming off or going back on.

Both teams expected turn. South Africa brought in Harmer to partner Maharaj in place of Lungi Ngidi, while Australia replaced the injured Starc with left-arm spinner Ashton Agar, playing his first Test in more than five years, and first at home. The inexperienced Klaasen got a start at No.3, since Theunis de Bruyn had gone home for the birth of his first child. The injured Green was replaced by Renshaw, whose previous Test had been at Johannesburg in March 2018; Hazlewood, fit again, returned for Boland. In a further complication, Renshaw tested positive for Covid-19 after the toss. He was allowed to play, but barred from the dressing-room, and spent five days on a plastic chair on the boundary.

Cummins won his third toss of the series, and this time batted. It was Khawaja’s turn for a huge score, his third successive century at the SCG after twin tons in the previous year’s Ashes. There were only 47 overs on the first day, during which he advanced to 54, adding 135 with Labuschagne. Harmer had looked dangerous at first, but Labuschagne combated spin superbly, hitting low aggressive sweeps through midwicket to force bowling changes. He edged what turned out to be the final ball of the day to the keeper, before a second and final stoppage for bad light.

With nearly a full second day, Khawaja and Smith sailed on. The slow surface created little jeopardy but made timing difficult; Khawaja reverse-swept or came down the pitch to spin, played pace with soft hands, and attacked when the ball was short. Smith was twitchy, with some uncharacteristic thrashes to the boundary amid the abstinence, but grew into his 30th Test century. That put him ahead of Don Bradman, and third in Australia’s all-time list, behind Ricky Ponting (41) and Steve Waugh (32); he also passed Michael Clarke’s 8,463 runs, to trail the same two, plus Allan Border.

It was only Smith’s second hundred in 12 Tests against South Africa, a résumé gap he had been keen to fill, and he was frustrated when he soon fell to a leading edge. Head went for his shots for the third time in the series, his 70 off 59 balls a cavalier delight; he might have been a more logical choice as Player of the Series than Warner, whose scores were nought, three, 200 and 10. By the end of the second day, Australia had 475-4, and Khawaja a career-best 195. But his chance of a double-century was ended by rain, which soaked the ground: the third day was washed out, and play did not restart until the fourth afternoon.

Cummins had little option but to declare, with 157 overs left in the match, and 20 wickets to take. Hazlewood produced an unplayable first few overs of seam movement, a searing short ball to take Elgar’s problematic glove, and shape in the air to draw Bavuma’s edge. Erwee left Lyon, a decision that looked silly when the ball grazed off stump. Cummins gave Klaasen a tenderiser at the midriff that he edged down leg, bowled a perfect line to skip the ball away from Verreynne, and came round the wicket to the right-handed Zondo, but still trapped him with a yorker.

With South Africa 149-6 at the close, Australia had a sniff. But Jansen’s plunging forward defence, with the physicality of a praying mantis and the temperament of a priest, soaked up an hour next morning, then the spinners combined with the bat. Harmer looked better than most of the top six, nullifying short balls by calmly pulling singles during 210 minutes at the crease, while Maharaj played a more free-swinging hand for a fifty – only his team’s fifth of a miserable series. They couldn’t save the follow-on before Hazlewood got the ball reversing. Cummins enforced it, but only 47 overs remained. That left time for one more Elgar glove to the keeper (he ended a chastening series with 56 runs from six attempts), and some painfully close lbw appeals from Lyon, but South Africa saw it through.

One talking-point of a low-key match was third umpire Richard Kettleborough’s refusal of three low slip catches, one to Harmer and two to Smith. Each seemed as if the player had fingers under the ball, only for inadequate replays to sow doubt. After the first not-out call, Kettleborough had to be consistent, though he seemed to be going against recent umpiring trends.

Australia had to settle for 2-0, amid talk of moving the Sydney Test to another time of year, or using a pink ball to obviate bad light. It ended a home season of plenty, but tougher trips away to India and England would be next. South Africa took the small solace of the draw, but had endured one of the tougher tours.

Player of the Match: UT Khawaja.
Player of the Series: DA Warner.

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