If any gloss was taken off this absorbing series, it was the way the two teams regularly rubbed each other up the wrong way. Australia took a particular shine to Faf du Plessis. After all these years, the Australians seemed not to have grasped how much their finger-pointing and nasally catcalling grates on compatriots as well as opponents.
Worse than this, according to the laws of cricket, was that Australia and South Africa rubbed the ball up the wrong way. After the second Test, Dave Warner said the Australians suspected the South Africans, and AB de Villiers in particular, of ball tampering. Warner was fined.
During the third Test, du Plessis insinuated that the Australians were up to no good in their efforts to cultivate reverse swing. This was a red polishing rag to a bull. As the drama escalated on the last day, the umpires appeared to give Michael Clarke an unofficial warning about his team’s interference with the ball.
Sometimes, cricket gets itself tangled up in its own red tape. Systematic work on a cricket ball to produce orthodox swing is considered an art. Systematic work on a ball to yield reverse swing is regarded as a heinous crime, punishable in the first instance by five runs, and ultimately by the full weight of the cricket law. In 2006, it led to Pakistan forfeiting a Test match.
Still, no-one can explain this statutory discrepancy. Orthodox swing is achieved by shining the ball on one side, reverse swing by roughing it up and weighting it. Law 42 permits polishing, explicitly disallowing help from ‘‘artificial substances’’, but implicitly allowing the agency of sweat and saliva.
But it forbids rubbing the ball on the ground, lifting the seams, using implements ‘‘or to take any other action whatsoever which is likely to alter the condition of the ball’’. By convention, this now includes bouncing the ball in from the outfield, for instance, the better to coarsen the surface.
Vigorous shining and deliberate roughing both are actions to alter the condition of the ball. The only difference is aesthetics. But bowlers do not shine the ball to preserve it as a thing of beauty, any more than they scuff it up to teach it a lesson. Both are to achieve an end. Both are ball-tampering, though I would argue that a more accurate term is ball-tempering.
Forgotten as the storm developed in South Africa is that Warner and Ryan Harris both spoke of how the Proteas ‘‘looked after’’ the ball in Port Elizabeth. The lesson Australia evidently learned in time for Cape Town was not that they should not do it themselves, but that they should do it better.
Neither shining nor scuffing by themselves will generate swing; the bowlers must have the skill. If a team works on the ball to facilitate reverse swing, but the bowlers do not or cannot swing it, that team is left with only a preternaturally old ball and a long day in the field. Caveat emptor applies.
But cricket had to make a law anyway. Why is anyone’s guess. Here is one. A reversing ball, skilfully bowled, swings not only counter-intuitively, but later and further than orthodox swing. Batsmen don’t like it. And by and large, batsmen still make the rules.
Cricket is replete with rules, written and unwritten. Clarke’s critics say that he broke one in Cape Town by declaring too late, almost costing Australia victory. They were looking only at Australia’s lead, far out of South Africa’s reach.
Clarke’s explanation concerned the overs Australia had to bowl, up to 140 of them, more if he had declared sooner. Declaring earlier would have been no guarantee of wickets against a South African team hell-bent on defence. The extra overs would have been at the end, when the bowlers were spent. As it was, the heroic Harris only barely survived.
Clarke had to make a fine judgment. What even his fiercest detractors must acknowledge is that he has a highly refined instinct for the game. He has shown it again and again. His placement of a wide leg slip to catch JP Duminy from Mitch Johnson relit Australia’s all but extinguished hopes in the lengthening shadows.
Clarke agreed that it had been a nerve-wrackingly near thing. In cricket, in pro sport generally, the end justifies the means, as long as they do not include cheating. See ball-tampering, above.