In March 2018, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull faced the media to address a developing story from South Africa that would soon escalate into a national scandal.

“We all woke up this morning shocked and bitterly disappointed,” he said. “How can our team engage in cheating like this? It beggars belief. This is a shocking disappointment.”


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His stinging riposte to the ball-tampering plot that became known as “Sandpapergate” was analogous to that of the anger, humiliation and shame felt in a proud country that reveres its sporting heroes.

Four years on, the spectre of Sandpapergate stills hangs over Australian cricket as they prepare to host South Africa in their first Test series since the incident in Cape Town.

Deposed captain Tim Paine recently made the explosive claim that South Africa had also tampered with the ball in the same series, while David Warner this month withdrew his bid to have his lifetime captaincy ban for his part in the saga lifted, saying the review panel wanted him to go through “public lynching”.

The cheating scandal was the culmination of a hostile series played at a ferocious intensity, which ended in South Africa’s first series victory over Australia since the Proteas' readmission in 1991 following an apartheid-inforced exile. 

Other flashpoints were Kagiso Rabada’s shoulder brush with Steven Smith after dismissing him in Port Elizabeth and Faf du Plessis, wearing nothing but a small white towel, stopping a brawl from breaking out in the player’s tunnel in Durban.

The Australian media reacted with fury to the Sandpapergate scandal

The events of 2018 offer a tantalising sub-plot ahead of the three-match series and resumption of one of the sport’s most intense rivalries.

Australia could field six players who featured in the ill-fated ball-tampering match, with captain Pat Cummins set to return after overcoming a quadricep injury. Josh Hazlewood has been ruled out of the opener as he continues to recover from a side strain.

Both missed the second Test against West Indies, which Australia won by 419 runs to complete a 2-0 series whitewash and retain the Frank Worrell Trophy.

Amid fresh claims from former coach Justin Langer that players briefed against him in the media, Nathan Lyon did his talking on the field, taking six wickets to set up a hard-fought victory in the first Test in Perth.

West Indies offered less resistance in the day-night second Test in Adelaide, crumbling to 77 all out in the second innings chasing an improbable 497.

“They’re a really good attack so it will be a really good challenge for our batters”
- Steve Smith

Western Australia prospect Lance Morris has been added to the squad as cover for Hazlewood, with Scott Boland set to retain his place after his heroics with the pink ball in Adelaide, which included a triple-wicket maiden.

“[We're] expecting Scott to take that spot at the Gabba,” said coach Andrew McDonald. “That’s the running line, and he’s done nothing wrong.

“His record is amazing at the moment, so he’ll take his place and the assumption is that Pat does play. So, you’ve got Cummins, [Mitchell] Starc and Boland, with [Cameron] Green and [Nathan] Lyon to support around that.”

With the bat, Marnus Labuschagne looks to continue his sublime form against the country of his birth after scoring 502 runs at an average of over 167 against West Indies, while Steve Smith is ready to test his revamped technique against a fearsome bowling attack.

Smith, who stepped in to captain Australia with Cummins ruled out, has a relatively meagre record against South Africa, averaging 41.53 from nine Tests.

Marnus Labuschagne is in excellent form ahead of his first-ever Test clash against the country of his birth

“They’re a really good attack so it will be a really good challenge for our batters. Hopefully we can continue the way we've started the summer,” he said.

“South Africa are the one team that have bowled pretty well to me in the past; my record’s probably not as good against them as some of the others.

“I feel in a good place, I feel like I’m batting nicely. I’m looking forward to it.”

South Africa are ranked second in the World Test Championship, behind Australia, and possess an attack that looks suited to Australian wickets conductive to fast bowling.

Rabada could spearhead a four-man pace attack with Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi and left-armer Marco Jansen, with spinner Keshav Maharaj also in contention after recovering from a groin injury.

The battle between Labuschagne, Smith and the South African pace cartel should make for compelling viewing as the top two batters in Test cricket, who have displayed fallibilities against express pace, face a trial by fire.

Anrich Nortje is one of the fastest bowlers in world cricket

Rabada and Ngidi combined to take eight wickets against a Cricket Australia XI in a drawn warm-up match in Brisbane and bowling coach Charl Langeveldt praised the pair ahead of the opener.

“KG has had a brilliant season for us so far. He bowled well,” he said. “Lungi has always been good and can swing the ball. Sometimes the conditions overhead in Brisbane [mean] it does swing.

“In Brisbane, they also leave a lot of grass on the wicket to start the game off, so that plays into our favour day one or day two. I think our lengths were the key. We were a lot fuller. If you bowl short, it looks good but is not going to get you the rewards.”

Captain Dean Elgar, Kyle Verreynne and Rassie van der Dussen all found form, but concerns remain about the brittleness of their batting. Not one of their batters averages above 40 and they were consistently exposed in England over the summer.

One thousand and twenty-nine days after Sandpapergate, Australia face South Africa once again in a Test series. As the cold snap continues to bite, settle in for the resumption of a combustible sporting rivalry that never disappoints.

Watch the first Test between Australia and South Africa from 12.15am on Saturday 17 December on BT Sport 1.