This past Sunday in Durban gave us just about as good a day of Test cricket as could be wished for. Challenged to score 417 to win the match, South Africa lost four wickets in a morning session of fine Australian bowling and the kind of calamitous run-out that so often afflicts the afflicted. At lunch, the question was if the game would make tea. Cue Aiden Markram, who batted out of his skin, with a couple of feisty partners. By tea, the question was: would the South Africans make 417?
At tea, CCTV filmed a stairwell stoush, and a clever clog from a media outlet made sure the voyeurs had some tasty material to work with. David Warner, Quinton de Kock and the boys - whose number included a near-naked Faf du Plessis - went viral. Blimey, talk about value for money.
On the back of the footage, and reasonably enough, Messrs Warner and de Kock were charged by Jeff Crowe, the match referee, under the ICC code of conduct. How tiresome. They had been at it all Sunday on the field and for much of most of the previous three days too. It's like a record, the needle scratching away at the vinyl until the first listener submits. Somewhere on the journey from playful banter to personal abuse, the game was surely brought into disrepute, but the umpires had no proof. Instead, the players allowed themselves to be captured on the cusp of fisticuffs by a security camera. More fool them. Does the management of the Australian team really believe the call of "it's the way we play" does justice to all those who have gone before? And can we really believe that provocation is the South African excuse for mixing it?
"Presumably the world's sledgers receive encouragement rather than admonishment in their own camps. This may not be from captains but from coaches and support staff who aren't obliged to face the heat of battle"
The South Africa camp claims Warner to be the catalyst; he certainly pops up often enough as a common denominator. Doubtless, the South Africans had discussed how to handle him, and shy retirement was not an option. For a day or two the exchanges out in the middle were funny - not quite handbags, but not far from. Enough good players are fired up by Warner's relentless diatribe - Virat Kohli and AB de Villiers among them - to suggest his breath is wasted anyway. A few others are distracted. They are the ones who crack, either with an angry response or by losing their wicket.
At first, the vice-captaincy appeared to have softened Warner's hard-bitten approach to the game. But no, he's back in full voice. At least he was. Australia have accepted Crowe's level-two charge, and with it comes a chunky fine and three demerit points. Warner now teeters, just a point away from suspension, alongside Kagiso Rabada and du Plessis, both of whom were notably quiet at Kingsmead.
It is hard to fathom Warner's thinking. Clearly he likes the idea of captaincy and might well have ambitions to lead the Test team. Recently he dropped the idea of politics into a conversation about life after cricket. His leadership of the recently successful T20 campaign was wholehearted, fearless and generally laudable. Why the fuse now? Maybe he feels talismanic in this regard - "I'm not captain but I sure still lead the way." It would be a good thing for everyone if Crowe's action tempered Warner's more boorish side. The message to kids, rookies and parents, sponsors, television networks and fans comes to mind at a time when Test cricket needs all the good PR it can get.
Having failed to accept the level-one charge, de Kock was fortunate to receive only its usual structure. Du Plessis, who admitted he heard personal stuff throughout the first Test, has made it clear he thinks the umpires can do more on the field to "nip it in the bud".
Therein lies a challenge for Crowe. His masterstroke would be to bring together the captains and umpires - maybe the vice-captains too (oh, to be a fly on that wall) - and find a way forward that allows for expression and emotion, but at the same time comes down hard on the petty sideshows that do, ultimately, bring the game into disrepute.
Steven Smith feels his players stay within the spirit of the game. Fair enough. Interpretations of that distant grail vary from place to place and from person to person. The only consensus might come over its most basic understanding, that respect for yourself, for your opponent and for the game is an essential starting point for the values that have long served cricket well.
Presumably the world's sledgers receive encouragement rather than admonishment in their own camps. This may not be from captains but from coaches and support staff, who aren't obliged to face the heat of battle and therefore can talk ugly without fear of exposure. Cricket is the cruellest game, mainly unfair and frequently exasperating: players are stripped to the bone over five days of competition, and have long boiled over in moments of duress. Thank goodness for that. It is not a softer game we look for but a kinder one.
Perhaps a card system is the way forward, as in football and rugby, though the parameters of behaviour are very hard to set and often harder still to unravel. Yellow might cool off and red would properly punish, but as we heard from the umpires' report this week, plenty of the usual nonsense was on offer but nothing beyond it was conclusive. Ah well, it looks as if we have avoided the legals. Crowe moved fast and directly. He is seen as a fair man, tough enough but both conciliatory and empathetic. Let's hope these matters are further resolved before Friday morning.
The last time these teams met in Port Elizabeth, Dale Steyn won the match with a thrilling burst of fast reverse swing that was matched, arguably surpassed, by Mitchell Starc last week. It was a great pity that tall and skilful Australian was not able to bowl for his hat-trick on Sunday afternoon. Had he pulled it off, that fine day of Test cricket would have been sealed with a worthy denouement.
As it is, we shall live with a mighty innings by the 23-year-old Markram; a gutsy return from the challenged Theunis de Bruyn; moments of magic from de Kock; a run-out for the ages, primarily because the defeated subject was so great a prize; and outstanding bowling that asked almost every question of batsmen in search of something wildly unlikely that they increasingly believed to be possible. Until Starc stepped in once more.