If Australia’s previous Test commitment at Cape Town’s perennially photogenic Newlands ground four years ago produced a triumph for the ages, then the one before that yielded a loss that will take a similarly lengthy time span to live down.
While the founding Test nation has fallen for lower totals than the 47 all out they recorded on an outwardly calm and sunny Thursday afternoon in early November 2011, rarely before or since has international cricket witnessed a similar level of non-stop mayhem across the course of a single day.
In total, 23 wickets fell in three sessions that – for only the third time in Test cricket to that point – hosted at least some part of all four innings before South Africa completed an eight-wicket win and then Australia captain Michael Clarke’s men undertook some earnest soul searching.
Clarke had started that opening Test’s second day in deservedly buoyant spirits.
His day one century – extended to 151 when he was last man dismissed - against a top-shelf Proteas’ attack of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Jacques Kallis, Imran Tahir and debutant seamer Vernon Philander was rated by his teammate and captaincy predecessor Ricky Ponting as “one of the best hundreds I will ever see”.
Come stumps, a demonstrably crestfallen skipper fronted a media conference and attempted, with understandable difficulty, to explain how his team had come to find themselves staring grimly at the lowest-ever innings total in almost 135 years of Test cricket.
A wretched piece of historical notoriety Australia only avoided when their last batting pair, Peter Siddle and Nathan Lyon, found 26 priceless runs that lifted their score from 9-21 to a face-saving (though ultimately match-losing) 47 in 95 minutes of hapless batting.
And given that the home team had been humbled for 96 in the short time between Australia’s first innings ending on 284 and their second imploding at speed, Clarke also faced the prospect of overseeing a defeat of equally rare scale.
Only once before in Tests had a team held such a hefty (in this case, 188-run) lead after bowling out their opposition for less than a hundred and then lost the match – that was South Africa, who had succumbed in similar, albeit inverse, circumstances at Durban more than 60 years prior.
The fact that 19 wickets tumbled for 94 runs in less than 30 overs between lunch and the day’s final hour would suggest, at face value, that the Newlands pitch had somehow been possessed by demons after Australia’s first innings.
But how then to explain South Africa’s pursuit of 236 for victory, a target they reached for the loss of just two wickets with their skipper Graeme Smith (101 not out) and Hashim Amla (112) both cruising to centuries on the third – and final – afternoon?
As the fierce rivals prepare to once more lock horns at a venue regarded as one of world cricket’s most visually stunning, it’s also worth noting that Newlands is regularly the scene of some of the Test game’s ugliest collapses.
Of the 20 occasions since 1877 that teams have been bowled out for less than 50, it’s happened five times at Cape Town.
The next-most common occurrence has been at historic venues in England (Edgbaston and Lord’s) and Australia (MCG and SCG) that have each seen sub-50 Test totals twice.
But due to South Africa’s isolation from international cricket from 1970 until 1992 because of its race-based apartheid laws, Newlands has hosted just 55 Tests and therefore averages a score below 50 once every 11 matches compared to Edgbaston (1 in 25), Sydney (1 in 53), Melbourne (1 in 55) and Lord’s (1 in more than 67).
Certainly Clarke knew, in the immediate aftermath of Australia’s humiliation that saw four players – Ponting, Michael Hussey, Brad Haddin and an incapacitated Shaun Marsh who batted at number 10 due to a crippling back ailment – record ducks, where blame should be attributed.
"The sun was out when we were batting, so we can't blame the wicket,” Clarke said, highlighting a telling difference with the Ashes disaster four years later at Trent Bridge when his team was skittled for 60 under grey skies that benefited England’s seam bowlers.
"There was enough in the wicket when it was overcast, but our shot selection was disgraceful.
“Today is ... unbelievable.”
The recriminations that invariably flow from such public failure were quick, and pointed.
Calls for Ponting, whose ruthlessly exposed technical flaw against inswing bowling was compounded by a Test century drought stretching towards two years, was deemed ‘past it’.
As was fast bowler Mitchell Johnson, who finished with one wicket from a bowler-dominated match while battling a serious, but as-yet-undiagnosed foot injury.
But the harshest critiques were saved for Haddin, whose brazen charge at the third ball he faced with his team 5-18 in the tenth over yielded nothing other than a woolly swish and another duck.
“My mindset was that we had to change the momentum of the game,” Haddin would later write in his autobiography ‘My Family’s Keeper’.
“I had to take a risk in an effort to move the game forward. If I could get a four they might change the field; then maybe we could scramble to 150 and then we’d have a game on our hands.
“Commentators described my shot as “reckless” and “irresponsible”, which, again, just highlights the vast crevasse between what happens inside the game and how people interpret it.
“Of course, I’d rather have succeeded and of course it stung to get out in that manner, but ‘irresponsible’ would have been if I hadn’t tried to make a breakthrough.
“However, part of playing at that level is living with the consequences of your choices.”
The searing focus on Australia’s frailty came as welcome relief for South Africa’s then captain, Graeme Smith.
Smith had entered that two-Test series, which Australia ultimately levelled thanks largely to seven wickets from Pat Cummins in his maiden Test at Wanderers a week later, under significant scrutiny given the Proteas’ recent run in the ODI format.
The opener had led South Africa to the World Cup in India earlier in the year, a campaign that once again ended prematurely for his under-achieving team, and then an ODI series loss to Australia that preceded the Tests.
During that time, Smith only once posted a score above 50 and the left-hander also underwent surgery for a knee injury he sustained in that year’s Indian Premier League T20 tournament, and was jeered by disaffected South Africa fans at several matches leading into that Cape Town Test.
Smith, who would claim he had not seen a scorecard similar to that of Australia’s dire second innings since he “was a young schoolboy”, had noted during his own team’s batting failure at Newlands that the most successful opposition bowler was fourth-string seamer Shane Watson.
“From watching on the sidelines, I took a couple of things from the way he bowled.” Smith told cricket.com.au’s ‘Unplayable Podcast’ last week in recalling Watson’s five-over spell that netted 5-17.
“He didn’t do too much, he just targeted that off stump and there was enough in the surface (to move the ball) both ways.
“I remember standing at first slip once and looking up at the scoreboard and seeing 21 for 9.
“I had a quiet giggle to myself because it was quite surreal, but then I knew I had to go and bat again on the surface, so I quickly sobered up and had to get my head on.”
Not surprisingly, Watson confirmed days later that – at the height of the calamity, when there existed the very real peril of a Test team being bowled out inside a dozen overs – Australia’s dressing room was gripped by panic.
Lyon, who along with Marsh, Cummins, Haddin (now Australia’s Bupa Support Team fielding coach) and Usman Khawaja are the only members of the current touring party with direct experience of the 2011 debacle, admits it was a new experience for him at elite level.
“It happened pretty quick to be honest, I think I walked out to bat when we were 9-21 in the 11th over,” said Lyon, whose 14 runs remains the lowest by a number 11 batter in Tests to earn the honour of top score in a team’s total.
“I’m not usually padded up in the eleventh over, or trying to pad up in the ninth.
“It was a little bit different.”
Apocryphal tales emerged of auxiliary members of Australia’s touring party heading off to a nearby gymnasium to undertake fitness work at the start of South Africa’s first innings, only to return a few hours later to find Smith and Amla still at the crease.
But totally oblivious to the reality that two full innings had been completed in their absence.
For Khawaja, who took on twelfth man duties while his fellow substitutes sweated it out at the gym, it proved to be a far more gruelling work-out as he made increasingly frequent dashes up and down the stairs that separate Newlands’ elevated dressing rooms from the playing arena.
“I remember that when we got South Africa out in that first innings, and went to bat in our second innings, it was Pat Cummins and Trent Copeland who were doing twelfth man duties with me,” Khawaja told Melbourne radio station SEN last week.
“I just said ‘boys, I did my gym session earlier in the day, go do your gym session now, I’ll take care of this - we’re batting, this’ll be easy.’
“But if you have ever been to Cape Town, the twelfthy sits right down the bottom and there are about 70 stairs to climb.
“Every time there was a wicket, I would run up those stairs.
“A couple of times I ran up the stairs to get someone’s (spare batting) gloves, and by the time I got up there they were out so I had to put the stuff back down and grab another kit.
“It really was unbelievable.
“It is always a good reminder to myself and I think to anyone that the game is never won and you can never get too far ahead of yourself.”
Qantas tour of South Africa
South Africa squad: Faf du Plessis (c), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Dean Elgar, Heinrich Klaasen, Quinton de Kock, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Morne Morkel, Chris Morris, Wiaan Mulder, Lungi Ngidi, Duanne Olivier, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, AB de Villiers.
Australia squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Peter Handscomb, Josh Hazlewood, Jon Holland, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine, Jhye Richardson, Chadd Sayers, Mitchell Starc.
Warm-up match: Australia beat South Africa A by five wickets. Report, highlights
First Test Australia won by 118 runs. Scorecard
Second Test South Africa won by six wickets. Scorecard
Third Test Newlands, Cape Town, March 22-26. Live coverage
Fourth Test Wanderers, Johannesburg, March 30-April 3. Live coverage