Dangerous nostalgia at heart of rivalry

Why do Australia win so often in South Africa? (2:19)

We wear the passionate fan's hat and try to find out the reasons behind their unique away record in South Africa (2:19)

One of the first things that strikes the eye about Kingsmead in Durban is how little the ground has changed over the past 25 years.

Players walk the same path to and from the middle as they did back in the day, meaning that at some stage Steven Smith will follow literally in the footsteps of Allan Border after his final Test innings in 1994. Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc will attempt to mimic the spells of Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson in 2009 with more or less identical approaches and breezes off the Indian Ocean, and David Warner would doubtless love to hammer sixes to the same grass bank as Phillip Hughes in his twin hundreds in that same match.

Inside the stands, the walls are adorned with fading pictures of past great players and moments: Jonty Rhodes' dive to demolish the stumps and run out Inzamam ul-Haq at the 1992 World Cup; the vicious, wrong-footed action of Mike Procter, and the keen followthrough of Malcolm Marshall. A mural of the ground under lights for a 2016 ODI between South Africa and Australia could have been taken at any one of the eight matches played between the two countries here since 1994, so little changed is the venue.

More broadly, the contest between South Africa and Australia brings with it a sense of continuity and shared history. These two sides were most evenly matched in a drawn series in 1994 that carried many of the same variables as this time around - two top quality pace attacks, high standards of fielding, and a level of on-field hostility summed up by the Wanderers outbursts of Shane Warne and Merv Hughes that brought heavy fines for the pair.

Moreover it is possible when South Africa and Australia play one another to simply sit back and enjoy the contest unfolding in the middle, without worries about schedules, pitches, cultural differences or the creeping barrage of Twenty20 and its attendant financial rewards. Put simply, these two teams routinely serve up the best that Test cricket has to offer, helped in no small part by the fact that the conditional differences between Australia and South Africa are so minimal as to make this the game's most even playing field.

As Faf du Plessis, South Afirca's captain, put it: "I would say its the most competitive series that you play. We're both very passionate, competitive cricketing nations and we try and leave it all out on the field. So it's certainly great entertainment for the people watching, so we're all raring to go and I'm sure the Australian cricket team is excited to start this series as well."

In many ways, the competitiveness of South Africa against Australia is one of the game's great wonders. Cricket in South Africa is a comparatively small business when lined up against Cricket Australia's participatory and financial heft - no South African, however much they love cricket, would think it plausible to adopt CA's goal to make the game "Australia's favourite sport". A reminder of this can be found on the journey into Durban, which takes drivers past the mighty Moses Mabhida football stadium (capacity: 62,760) and the cacophonous Kings Park stadium (52,000) before turning right towards Kingsmead's more homely ground, with room for 25,000.

Where CA has been able to push boisterously for ever larger audiences and television rights fees, South Africa's administrators have had to strike a careful balance between the demands of transformation, the realities of a changing nation and the typical conservatism of the players. For this reason, none of the four Tests of this series will be played under lights, despite the third Test of the preceding encounter between the sides down under taking place with a pink Kookaburra ball at a packed Adelaide Oval.

That leads to another element of the game in South Africa that remains unchanged - Test cricket's place as an acquired, niche taste for small audiences rather than the mainstream entertainment it has managed to become in Australia. Given the quality of the cricket itself, sparsely attended Test matches in this part of the world have been a source of mystification for many, not least the former Australian selection chairman Rod Marsh, who devoted a significant portion of his 2015 MCC Cowdrey lecture to the topic.

"How can the Test match crowds in South Africa be so poor?" Marsh asked. "They have a magnificent team with arguably the best fast bowler in the world and possibly the best batsman in the world. Yet no one goes to watch them play at home. Come on you guys, get active, there will be a time when your product isn't that good and you'll struggle to exist."

As captain of Australia, Smith has become well acquainted with his dual requirements to win Test matches for his country and also to entertain, even if his tactical instincts are not quite so cavalier as those of his predecessor, Michael Clarke. When asked about how he viewed the health of Test cricket and his team's responsibility to grow it, Smith spoke pointedly of the day/night variant, about which the Australians overcame early reticence and have now played four such fixtures.

"We try and entertain as much as possible, that's for sure," Smith said. "I think there's been some terrific innovations in Test cricket, the pink-ball games that we've played, the crowds have been unbelievable, the television ratings have been unbelievable and just the product's been terrific, so we're always trying to improve the game as much as we can to keep Test cricket as relevant as possible. I feel like it's going quite strong at the moment and I hope it continues to do so."

The one occasion South Africa did experiment with a floodlit Test against Zimbabwe, the match was over in less than two days and no-one turned up. An unsuccessful outcome to that experiment seems to have left the long game in a holding pattern, much as the postponement of plans for a new franchise-based South African T20 tournament have caused a similar sense of inertia about the shorter format. What goes on all the while is the movement of players out of the Test side, from Kyle Abbott last year and Morne Morkel this week to AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla in the near future.

This series is, therefore, a kind of valedictory event for many in the current South African team, both for those unlikely to face Australia again and also the rest knowing they will never again share quite the same dressing room. Much as Graeme Smith had hoped in 2014, du Plessis' team are eager to overturn another tradition of these encounters - Australia having never lost a series in South Africa since readmission. An Australian bowling attack of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon is a formidable obstacle to that goal, as is Smith's undisputed place as the world's leading Test batsman.

Holes in the South African team are slowly being filled by the burgeoning pool of black talent coming through the system, including Temba Bavuma (injured this week), Kagiso Rabada and the Durban product Lungi Ngidi. It is hoped, ultimately, that a team more reflective of the demography of the nation will finally bring cricket the South African audience that it deserves. A World Cup win after so many near-misses would not go astray either, and the looming Test Championship will also help bring a sense of wider purpose.

But the unchanging visage of Kingsmead stands largely to remind visitors that the pace of change is slower than required. All the while this brings South African cricket closer to a dangerous phase in which the current well of talent runs dry due to outside forces, before it can be replenished by the good works being done within the game. World cricket has already lost one great Test team in the form of the West Indies due to shifting cultural and economic tides - to lose another would be damaging to all concerned.

So it is that the history and familiarity of walking in the footsteps of Border, Warne, Hughes and Johnson is a great one for Smith's team, yet the comfortable nostalgia of Australia's meetings with the Proteas would do well to be swept away in the future by the emergence of a team for all South Africans. A team capable not only of regularly filling Kingsmead, but Moses Mabhida too.