There was nothing lucky about Australia's series triumph in South Africa.
No doubt Australia was helped by winning the toss in Cape Town and then having the opposition’s best bowler, Dale Steyn, succumbing to a hamstring injury on day one of the series decider, but in the context of the series they were mere footnotes given how conclusively Australia outperformed the world’s best team with bat, ball and in the field.
Little was allowed to go right for South Africa after it sent Australia in after winning the toss in the first Test at Centurion. While Australia's lunch score of 3-83 was hardly a dream start from the visitors it was better than what it could, and maybe should, have been given how threatening the home team’s bowlers, particularly Vernon Philander for a rare time in the series, looked against the Australians.
As Australian coach Darren Lehmann noted in the afterglow in Cape Town, his batsmen deserved significant credit for the triumph. David Warner was the stand-out batsman, but the others spread the scoring load better than their South African counterparts.
It was not as if South Africa's big guns went missing. A.B. de Villiers and Hashim Amla both averaged more than 50 – as did J.P. Duminy – while with the ball Steyn claimed 12 wickets at 26.42, trumped only by Mitch Johnson and his 22 wickets at 17.36.
The importance of the chasm between the opening partnerships in the series cannot be over overstated. Australia, through Warner and Chris Rogers, benefited from 337 runs in its first-wicket partnerships, at an average of 56.17. South Africa’s record, with Graeme Smith and either Alviro Petersen or Dean Elgar, was a pitiful 66 runs at 11, with a top partnership of 15. It meant that Amla, and later Elgar, at No.3 never got a decent platform.
One reason an Australian series victory looked a distinct possibility early in the series was the occasionally listless – and sometimes hopeless – fielding by South Africa. In the first Test alone it put down seven chances – as many as Australia did for the entire series. It was not just the missed chances and run-outs; the sloppiness in ground fielding was staggering for a team that had not lost any of its preceding 26 series. It was a clear sign the Proteas were not as focused and as hungry as the Australians.
In the first two Tests Warner was given six lives, including a run-out. The left-hander made the South Africans pay for their profligacy by making 115 in the second innings in Centurion, after being given his chance on 26, and then in the loss at Port Elizabeth went on from 36 to 66.
Across the three Tests Australian batsmen who were spared went on to make another 548 runs. South Africa got only 146 runs from surviving batsmen.
Warner was probably the last batsman you wanted to be giving lives because of his remarkable scoring rate. He scored at an average of 97 runs for every 100 balls faced. Among other batsmen who made 100 runs for the series the closest to him was Steve Smith with 58.
When Lehmann praised his players’ bold approach throughout the series one thing he was undoubtedly referring too was its scoring rates. Across the three Tests the visitors’ run rate was 3.88, while South Africa’s was 2.99. A more telling statistic was that across the series Australia scored at least 100 runs in a session on 10 occasions, whereas South Africa managed it only three times.
It was for that reason Australian bowlers occupied all but two of the top 11 rankings in economy rates, with Kyle Abbott (eighth) the best for South Africa. The three Proteas bowlers who played in each match – Steyn, Philander and Morne Morkel – all conceded more than 3.5 runs an over, with Steyn the only one who finished with an average below 50.
Beyond the 2-1 scoreline, one area that made clear Australia’s dominance was in sessions won, a method of appraisal not popular, because it is subjective, but nevertheless noted by a lot of coaches.
Of the 45 sessions, Australia won 20, South Africa 10 and the remainder were drawn. It was little wonder Graeme Smith said in his final press conference as a player, and captain, that Australia had "deserved the series win".
He went on to note the toss in Cape Town and injury to Steyn in the last Test and the illness he played with in the first. He need not have bothered.
Despite Mark Taylor’s claim that the Australians’ triumph in South Africa entitles them to be considered the world’s best team, by virtue of beating the No.1 side on its own patch, that title is not official. After all, South Africa was just 27 balls away from drawing the series. But given the way Australia’s stars are thriving, Michael Clarke’s team is is heading in the right direction.