CAPE TOWN — The last team to dominate world cricket was Australia.
Like South Africa, they had a brilliant seam attack, headed by Glenn McGrath and backed up by Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee, Michael Kasprowicz and a handful of others.
Unlike South Africa, they also had a great spinner — if not the greatest. They had a settled top six and a brilliant wicketkeeper-batsman. They played with a fearlessness that came from a collective confidence and belief in themselves so huge it was no wonder it was often seen as arrogance.
South African supporters tend to remember only the results. All proud sports reporters tend to diminish the details of unpleasant or painful results. It is human nature.
But a close re-examination of the scorecards of many of the Test matches between the two countries during Australia’s "golden era" in the late 1990s and early 2000s will show how many times the Proteas put the Aussies under pressure — only for Adam Gilchrist to smash a century from as many balls. Or for Shane Warne to take 5/40.
Actually, there were legitimate reasons to regard Australia as arrogant, not the least of which was their administrative support of Bangladesh holding Test status — but in a "nonplaying capacity".
In other words, they had no objection to Bangladesh playing Test cricket, just as long as they did not have to play them.
When they were finally coerced into playing the Asian minnows, McGrath famously said before the first Test between the countries on Australian soil that they should try to become the first team to win in a day. Asked whether he was serious, he said that Steve Waugh should put them in to bat, bowl them out for 50, make 200 by tea, and then bowl them out a second time.
He was being serious.
It was the ruthless approach of a champion boxer, not content merely with victory but intent on knocking out his opponent as quickly as possible.
In previous years, perhaps, Proteas teams have been content to take their time in dismantling inferior opposition. Either that or they have expected lesser teams to roll over, paws in the air, at the mere sight of an infinitely more talented South African team.
They have, on occasion, failed to remember the basics.
On Wednesday, they were as ruthless as any team could be. Fast, efficient and utterly without mercy. Vernon Philander bowled line and length, Dale Steyn was content for his reputation to have a cowering effect on the top order, and Morne Morkel resisted the temptation to bowl short at batsmen who were clearly nervous about facing him. ("Scared" is the right word, but it was an embarrassing enough day for the Black Caps without rubbing it in.)
Far from being tempted to take their time and "lay a platform" against vastly inferior bowlers, South Africa’s top order scored at four runs an over for the rest of the day and played the tourists out of the match before the first day had even ended.
They could probably score 600 from here. But that would not be "efficient" or ruthless. Chasing individual team records would be an expression of unnecessary vanity. Instead, they could declare at lunch and win inside two days. That would be far more fitting behaviour for champions who not only talk about respecting the game and their opposition, but who have frequently displayed such respect.
Fearless and mean, but dignified, too. Quite a combination. And one the Black Caps had no answer to on day one, and are unlikely to find an answer to throughout the series.