Down under on the Highveld
Could it be?At the Wanderers? In Johannesburg? It could. It was.
An artifact from an entirely foreign field was flying around the outfield at lunch during the third day of the fourth Test on Sunday.
It was brick-red, blunt-ended, and oval, and a pair of spectators punted and marked it between themselves in the wan autumn sun.
There it was, plain as Merv Hughes’ moustache: an Australian Rules football.
By then the most aggressive cricket crowd in the country had heartily applauded Pat Cummins reaching a maiden half-century in Tests.
After lunch they would cheer Tim Paine making his fourth 50 as if he was one of their own, with extra appreciation because he batted with a broken thumb.
The ratio of support for the respective teams was skewed by Joburgers’ duvets offering a more welcoming environment on a damp and drizzly long weekend morning, but not nearly enough to tilt the numbers’ balance in the stands in the visitors’ favour.
So were we in Johannesburg, Gauteng (population: 9.6-million) or Jindabyne, New South Wales (population: 2 629, or about as many people as were on the outfield during lunch)?
What the hell was going on?
Were Joburgers — Joburgers! — actually applauding the opposition?
They were, and good on them.
A little civility goes a long way when a series stinks with acrimony on both sides of the boundary and far beyond, and this series has stunk more than most.
The players always set the example in these matters. They did so poorly in the first Test at Kingsmead, which infected the crowd at St George’s Park, and again at Newlands.
So there was sense and sensibility in Paine hatching the idea of the players shaking hands after they sang the national anthems on Friday. That set the tone and the crowd duly followed.
Clearly, goodwill is contagious. When Keshav Maharaj edged Pat Cummins in South Africa’s first innings on Saturday, he walked without waiting for the umpire.
When Mitchell Marsh dived spectacularly from leg slip on Sunday to catch a delivery from Nathan Lyon that had turned from Hashim Amla’s off stump clean past his leg stump — and looked like it might have taken the edge of Amla’s swiping bat — there was no appeal.
Paine had the captaincy of Australia’s team foisted on him when Steve Smith was banned and sent home to face the funereal music for his role in the ball-tampering saga.
But the wicketkeeper, his 33 years belying his boyishness, is no novice at leadership.
The Wanderers Test is his 99th match at the helm since he led Tasmania against Northern Territory in an under-17 match at Brisbane Grammar School on New Year’s Day, 2001.
Paine took three catches in his opponents’ only innings and, batting at No. 4, scored 100 in more than four-and-a-half hours at the crease.
Another reason to admire Australian cricket in this bleak week looked down on the Wanderers from the Unity Stand that rises four floors high above the Corlett Drive End.
Forty-five years ago on Sunday, Jim Maxwell began his commentary career. He has become the voice of cricket in and from his country and, in the process, won the friendship of many around the cricketing globe.
If Australia recognise the need to dispatch better representatives into the world than Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, they could do worse than send a fair-minded, friendly, first-class bloke like Maxwell.