South African fans hold up a sign as Brett Lee walks back to his mark

Fans raise questions of parentage at a 2006 T20 in Johannesburg

© Getty Images

Hate to Love

Those damned unconquerable Aussies

For the first time in the Hate to Love series, an entire country

Daniel Gallan |

I had long put down my pens and closed my books when my mother told me that I didn't have to complete my homework if I didn't want to. In fact, I didn't have to go to school in the morning.

She had already declared the next day - June 18, 1999 - a family holiday and bounded about the house making phone calls and inviting friends over for an impromptu celebration. "I've got the drinks, you bring the ice," she said into the landline, already pouring herself and my father a stiff one.

After the years of isolation and near misses, after the rain in 1992 and Brian Lara's heroics in 1996, Lance Klusener was about to book South Africa's place in the World Cup final for the first time. Paul Reiffel had just botched what would have been a match-winning catch at long-on by palming the ball over his head for a slapstick six. It all seemed preordained. The drama unfolding on our screens was not merely conveying a sports event contested in Birmingham. This was a set piece where the good guys were assured of their victory.

Klusener's railway sleeper of a bat, which had already carved a path of destruction across the tournament, now creamed Damien Fleming for two consecutive boundaries through the covers to bring the scores level.

One solitary run from four balls. One solitary run for a spot in the final at Lord's. One solitary run to beat Shane Warne, Steve Waugh and Glenn McGrath. I'd never wanted anything more in my entire life.

The scene that followed still gives me chills.

A mishit down the ground, Klusener running, Allan Donald ball-watching and then dropping his bat, dislodged bails, a swarm of canary yellow shirts, and the hollow faces of my parents as I looked to them for answers.

"What does this mean?" I asked.

"Finish. Your. Homework!" my mother hissed back, visibly shaking.

Before the word "choke" had become an indelible part of my cricketing lexicon, I knew I hated the Australians. Those damned unconquerable Aussies who inhabited an alien time zone and behaved in a manner that was the antithesis of what I was conditioned to believe was the true spirit of the game.

Before the word "choke" had become an indelible part of my cricketing lexicon, I knew I hated the Australians

Their accents were just a touch too nasal, and they spoke a language that was bereft of any humility or grace. They had a swagger that was both captivating and terrifying. As a sports-mad youngster in the nascent democracy that was Nelson Mandela's Rainbow Nation, I had come to associate overt masculinity solely with rugby. Cricket was the gentleman's game, where opposing fielders would doff their cap whether you registered a half-century or a first-ball duck.

The Australians played by different rules. They'd beat you to a pulp and rub your nose in your own mess for good measure. The 4-0 hammering of Bill Lawry's men at the hands of Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock in 1970 loomed large over my early steps as a cricket fan. Whenever the Australians would inflict yet another crushing defeat on my countrymen, the ghosts of the past would rear their head and remind us of the chasm that now existed between the sides.

There were a few occasions to convince me that the contest resembled something of a rivalry. Fanie de Villiers' match-winning 6 for 43 to bowl Australia out for 111 (the first Test I watched from start to finish) and Hansie Cronje's 122 in Johannesburg later that year (the first Test I watched live) stand out, but the scarcity of victories such as these only amplified my inferiority complex. Indeed, over the next 13 years across 20 Tests, I witnessed only two South African wins - both at home - alongside four draws. I was akin to a young Gaul coming to terms with the might of Imperial Rome and learning to accept the inevitability of their conquest of my homeland.

No matter how fast Allan Donald was, there was the immovable Steve Waugh. No matter how brave Mark Boucher was, there was the trailblazing Adam Gilchrist. No matter how fluent Daryll Cullinan was, there was the beguiling Warne.

In 2000, a year after the anguish of that tied match at Edgbaston, the details of Hansie Cronje's "unfortunate love for money" were revealed at the King Commission hearings. It was only after Cronje's downfall that I learned of "John the bookmaker" and his sordid relationship with Warne and Mark Waugh. Unlike South Africa's handling of the Cronje fiasco, the Australian board had swept the matter under the carpet by privately fining the players. I had idolised Cronje and was forced to face the hard truth that even my heroes could be corrupted. My counterparts across the Indian Ocean were spared this moral lesson. I hated them all the more for it.

Junior spectators take to artless sledging at the 2016 Adelaide Test

Junior spectators take to artless sledging at the 2016 Adelaide Test © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

A year later I was 13 and crossed that body of water with my parents, who had packed up the family and migrated to the white South African sanctuary of Perth. There I was consumed by cricket but always felt like I was walking in an alien landscape. Even when representing age-group teams in Western Australia I saw myself as a South African mole, wearing the nickname "Saffa" as a badge of honour.

Visa troubles forced us to return to Johannesburg after two years. I landed back home after an 11-hour flight, feeling as if my sojourn down under was just a dream, but I was reminded of it by the hint of an Australian twang that now touched my lips. The bastardised accent exposed me and drew ridicule from my classmates, who made more than the odd quip about sheep.

In the eyes of my contemporaries and on the cricket field, I represented something that I had learned to hate. I did my best to demonstrate just how South African I truly was. I cheered loudest during sports events and sought to follow the exploits of the athletes who represented my country (particularly those in cricket, rugby and football) more than anyone else. In a way, this led me down a path towards earning a living as a sportswriter.

In recent years I have had an easier time as a South African fan. In late 2008, when I was in university and more assured of my own identity, I watched Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers make hundreds to secure victory in Perth, and JP Duminy announce himself to the world with that magnificent 166 in Melbourne (still my favourite century scored by a South African) to help the team claim a series for the first time in Australia. In the 14 Tests since that series victory, the Proteas matched the Aussies, winning seven and losing seven. Things have been even better in the 50-over format, with 17 of the 28 completed matches since the 2007 World Cup semi-final going South Africa's way.

Recent events both on and off the field prove that hostilities between the two sides have not cooled, but the invincible aura that I had grown accustomed to has faded. The gaping void that once existed has been dramatically diminished, yet my desire to see the baggy green humbled has remained as strong as ever.

I wouldn't be the same person I am today were it not for cricket, and I wouldn't be the cricket fan or writer I am were it not for Australia and their unconquerable super villains who routinely reduced my heroes to bumbling amateurs.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance journalist in Johannesburg. @danielgallan

 

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