The “what ifs” will never be answered, but South Africa deserve credit for pulling themselves out of a slump which, at one stage, looked like it might never end. A new era can begin from here, but it will only dawn in six months’ time. While they wait, South Africa have plenty of time to plan and plot the way forward into their new era. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
England might have played some of the worst cricket they have managed this entire series in the fourth Test, but South Africa also played some of their best. For the first time in well over four months, South Africa clicked. Even when they were very nearly bogged down by yet another injury to a fast bowler, and Kyle Abbott had to have his hamstring massaged, their shoulders did not drop.
Even with one of their best players – AB de Villiers – misfiring, the rest of the batting line-up showed some impetus, and for the first time since 2014 they had three centurions in an innings, and the young Kagiso Rabada made history by becoming the youngest South African to take a ten-wicket haul. Even with De Villiers picking up three ducks in a row, there was enough support from the rest of the batsmen to make up the runs. They might have slipped from one to three in the rankings, but the emphatic 280-run win at Centurion will go a long way in nursing some the wounds that have been inflicted on them by this series, and the diabolical tour to India.
With so much criticism surrounding the team and the coaching staff over the last few months, there would have been a few sighs of relief that they had finally broken their nine-match winless streak. For De Villiers, things are looking good and this performance has been a long time coming.
“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Villiers said after the match. “We didn’t play very good cricket at the Wanderers, but I still felt that our attitude was really good. We were there to win the Test match, but we had one blow-out session. I think there is something brewing, and a bit of confidence starting to develop.
“There is some experience coming into the side mixed with good youth and lots of talent,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons to be positive, we are not going to get ahead of ourselves, there is a lot of hard work to be done.”
Hard work indeed. Let’s not beat around the bush. South Africa were outplayed for the bulk of this series. The hosts were at a disadvantage since that first day in Durban with their two leading bowlers – Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander – out injured. But it’s not that South Africa lost recently, it is how they lost that has been problematic. A team cannot go for more than 12 months without a century stand or passing 250 in an innings without some serious question marks rising over their heads. But some of those questions have now been answered, and the win at Centurion shows that there is enough talent in this side to make it through this difficult period. It does not excuse some of the poor performances over the last few months, but it shows that it is not all doom and gloom. Yes, there have been some very dark moments in recent times, some of the darkest since readmission. Emerging from these moments will take real character and will define the next era of cricket in the country.
That next era involves an exciting crop of youngsters and some experienced campaigners. Rabada, Temba Bavuma, Dane Piedt, Quinton de Kock and Stephen Cook are just some of the players who have made a mark on this series. Even Stiaan van Zyl will remain an outside option with coach Russell Domingo saying that the southpaw has insisted that he wants to keep opening the batting at franchise level and is pushing for a place. Cliché as it might be, their emblem of the Protea is the first to regenerate after a devastating fire, and there have been few things as devastating for this group of players, who had become so accustomed to winning, than these last few months.
“Tough times are part of the game and part of an individual’s career,” De Villiers said. “It comes when a team is going through a phase. I never felt like it was panic stations even though we never won a match in eight or nine matches. Things came together, we applied pressure for a bit longer, did the basics better than we have done in the last while. Those are the kind of things I have been asking for over the last 14 days, and luckily we got it right here.”
South Africa do not play a Test until August this year, when New Zealand visit these shores, so they have plenty of time to plan. Part of their considerations will be who to appoint as the full-time Test captain. Towards the end of the series, De Villiers hinted that it’s something he’d consider, a turnaround to the start of the series where he did not outright deny that he is considering retiring from Test cricket all together. Centurion and the result there will have made some of the planning easier, but South Africa are not out of the woods yet. From here, they require leadership on and off the field, and it is in this time where Domingo can really come into his own. He has taken much criticism, but it is easy to forget that he once took the whipping boys of South African cricket, the Warriors, and turned them into trophy winners who produced a core group of national players. He took South Africa to a series win in Sri Lanka, and while things have gone South since then, the next few months present an opportunity to defy the critics, and the best way to do that is by winning. First box ticked, then. DM
South Africa 475 (De Kock 129*, Cook 115, Amla 109, Stokes 4-86) and 248 for 5 dec (Amla 96, Bavuma 78*) beat England 342 (Root 76, Cook 76, Moeen 61, Rabada 7-112) and 101 (Rabada 6-32) by 280 runs