Casting around for something to watch in the wake of the early finish at the MCG, I alighted on the History Channel, halfway into a Nostradamus retrospective to mark the 500 years since his birth. (For the pedantic archivists among you, yes he was born in 1503 – the programme was five years old). Anyway, it emerged during the transmission that the reputed seer had dabbled in the medical field before embarking on the work that made him most famous – his book The Prophecies, which contained the renowned quatrains on future world events – a field he had first been attracted to after witnessing one woman’s response to the Black Death, which was sweeping through France in the 16th century.
Resigned to her fate, the pustules on her body multiplying at an alarming rate, the poor woman, a talented seamstress who did not want the world to see the harm the disease was wreaking on her body, simply rolled herself into a burial shroud and started to sew herself into it from the inside. She was discovered dead some time later, the plague having taken her mid-stitch. It struck me, as Ricky Ponting was paraded in front of the sponsors’ logos for a light grilling by Mark Taylor, perhaps over keen to point out that it was not he who had presided over Australia’s first series defeat at home for 16 years, that the Tasmanian might have been tempted to take similar action had someone walked by with a needle and thread.
Ponting, despite being characterised over the years as an occasionally boorish man whose occupation with cricket has been detrimental to the development of a wider personality, has always struck me as a pretty articulate fellow, given to more intelligible analysis of a match at its conclusion than many others in the world game. But on this occasion, while the mouth seemed to be moving with its usual rapidity, the words tumbling out lacked their customary quickfire clarity: it was as if while the body of one of the world’s leading batsmen was in situ, its inhabitant was finding it quite difficult to locate on the time-space continuum.
Maybe that’s what the realisation that you are no longer in charge of the globe’s greatest cricket team can do to you. (OK, technically he is, according to the ICC official rankings, although defeat at Sydney will alter that). But it was as if Ponting, the third member of a 4x100m relay team, had taken up the baton seamlessly from running mates Taylor and Steve Waugh, only to find that, having reached the end of his leg, the man waiting to take it from him was not Michael Clarke, but Graeme Smith. Who must surely have strayed into the wrong lane.
Not that Smith himself was able to impress with the lucidity of his response when asked to put South Africa’s achievement into words. The final 100 metres had taken its toll on him and left him breathless – and all but speechless – with excitement.
For the observer – and surprisingly perhaps for an English one who has suffered recent disappointment at the hands of both these men – it was an emotionally confusing moment: there was sympathy for Ponting, who looked like he would struggle to smile had he been been shown a video of Gary Pratt tumbling off England’s 2005 Ashes parade open-top bus, and genuine pleasure for Smith, who was having enormous difficulty in suppressing the huge grin that so obviously wanted to escape its proprietor’s rigidly-controlled visage.
But does all this really signal the changing of the guard? If you look at the way in which South Africa recovered from situations of seeming hopelessness to put themselves in positions to win, you would have to conclude that they have snatched the cloak which Australia have worn with such style for years straight off their backs. And while Ponting’s bowling attack was perishing with the pace of a population caught in the path of one of Nostradamus’s pandemics, the South African tail in Melbourne showed the kind of resilience and courage that the infamous soothsayer portrayed when he ran into plague-ridden towns even as any physician with any sense was getting the hell out of there.
Dale Steyn, whose default move in his 33 previous Test innings had been in the direction of square leg even before most fast bowlers had leapt into their delivery strides, suddenly, if gradually, discovered that movement in the opposite direction, behind the line of the ball, was a more rewarding strategy, even if he had to take a couple of fearsome blows in the process, learning that it also gave him a more solid framework from which to essay some strong strikes down the ground.
And with JP Duminy, whose class and temperament had been apparent in the second innings in Perth, showing the kind of ability that had Mark Nicholas, admittedly one not drawn to understatement since he started sharing the commentary box with the likes of Ian Healy and Tony Greig, making comparisons with a young Brian Lara, it seems that the lords of cricket who dish out the kind of once-in-a-generation talent that had been sprinkled on the Warne family of Fern Tree Gully, Victoria, on September 13, 1969, have moved their operations to Cape Town.
The pair’s ninth-wicket partnership must rank as one of the most remarkable passages of play I have witnessed in a Test match. They didn’t so much snatch the initiative, as eke it out ball by ball – robbery by stealth from a complacent foe who had left their plans (waiting for the new ball) on display on the back seat of an unlocked car. Which they then drove off in.
Perhaps it would be foolhardy to completely write off Australia as a force to be reckoned with – Ponting has come back from serious disappointments before and may already be formulating a plan to take to South Africa in February – but it does now appear that a new world order is being established.
A shame then, that we must wait for more than a year before South Africa take their all-conquering side to India, and another year before India fly in the opposite direction. I’ll be getting in some serious study of Nostradamus’s quatrains in the meantime to see if he had anything to say on the outcome of that contest.