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Proteas back on track after a summer of turmoil

Proteas back on track after a summer of turmoil
Quinton de Kock on day three of the third Test between South Africa and England at St Georges Park in Port Elizabeth on 18 January 2020. (Photo: Deryck Foster / BackpagePix)

The Proteas completed a tumultuous summer of cricket with a 3-0 One-Day International series win over Australia at the weekend. It was a positive bookend to a season that started with a collapse in Cricket South Africa’s leadership and massive administrative change, set against a backdrop of gross mismanagement and misconduct.

There was a note of defiance in the way Heinrich Klaasen dispatched Australia bowler Mitch Marsh over long-on for six to clinch the One-Day International (ODI) series 3-0 in Potchefstroom on Saturday. 

The Proteas were well on course to win with 4½ overs left and six wickets in hand to reach the 255-run target before Klaasen launched the winning hit. But after a season of slowly rebuilding following defeats and lessons, Klaasen’s winning stroke was a defiant up-yours from the players to the people who failed them for the last two years – the Cricket South Africa (CSA) leadership. 

In December 2019, two years of CSA’s incompetent leadership under chief executive Thabang Moroe came to a head, which led to a complete overhaul of the organisation’s hierarchy. 

Under Moroe, CSA had fallen out with the South African Cricketers’ Association (Saca) and was facing legal action from the players’ trade union after Moroe’s unilateral decision to change the structure of the domestic game. 

CSA was also in arbitration with the Western Province Cricket Association (a case it lost) and three senior staff members, Corrie van Zyl (acting director of cricket), Naasei Appiah (chief operations officer) and Clive Eksteen (head of commercial) were suspended without explanation and due process. In his increasing megalomania, Moroe banned critical journalists from attending and reporting games in the Mzansi Super League (MSL). 

That decision ultimately ended Moroe’s tenure as CEO as major sponsor Standard Bank pulled out of renewal talks and effectively ended its annual R80-million sponsorship of South African cricket. Four board members also resigned in the wake of those strong-arm tactics.

Jacques Faul was hastily roped in as interim CEO, and the appointment of Graeme Smith as acting director of cricket soon followed. Smith wasted little time in appointing successful franchise coach and former Protea great Mark Boucher as the men’s head coach only 12 days before England arrived for a four-Test, three-T20 and three-ODI campaign. 

The summer started promisingly for the Proteas while all around them South African cricket, operationally and administratively, was in flux. Victory over England at Centurion in the first Test was a welcome spike after a calamitous month but it was a result of England’s rustiness more than the Proteas’ strength. 

Nearly half the England squad were bedridden with severe influenza (this was a pre-coronavirus — Covid-19 — world) and they were badly underdone. But they rallied to win the next three Tests convincingly. It underlined to Boucher, Smith and everyone associated with the team that major work is needed for the Proteas to be a force at Test level again. 

The turmoil at CSA also coincided with the retirements of key players Hashim Amla, Morne Morkel and AB de Villiers from the Test arena, as well as Dale Steyn’s injury problems over the past two years. That void of experience and talent could not have come at a worse time. 

Captain Faf du Plessis struggled for form and he became the central figure in a social media tsunami after the out-of-form Temba Bavuma was dropped and asked to regain his form in domestic cricket. In the hysterical social media space, there was no room for nuanced debate about the situation, especially as the pair were not vying for the same berth. 

Bavuma did his part by scoring a career-best 180 for the Lions and was duly recalled. Although his Test return didn’t yield runs, Bavuma was a key player in the limited-overs format later in the summer with his confidence and form restored. 

Despite the series loss, there were slivers of light for Boucher to focus on. Opener Pieter Malan and middle-order batsman Rassie van der Dussen, both making Test debuts at the age of 30, showed they had the temperament and technique for the Test arena. Fast bowler Anrich Nortje highlighted the value of sheer pace with some impressive spells in the absence of the injured Lungi Ngidi. Nortje took 18 wickets at 27.11 in the series, four more than his celebrated teammate Kagiso Rabada. 

When the season moved into the white-ball game, the Proteas narrowly lost the T20 and ODI series against England by 2-1. As England are the current ODI world champions there was no disgrace in that.

Du Plessis was replaced as T20 and ODI skipper by Quinton de Kock, whose batting form against England was a constant highlight. De Kock scored 184 runs and averaged 62.33 in the ODIs against England. In the T20s he scored 131 runs at an average of 43.66 and in the Tests he top-scored with 380 runs at an average of 47.50. That form disappeared against Australia, but by then Klaasen, a resurgent David Miller, new caps Janneman Malan and Kyle Verreynne and Jon-Jon Smuts had assumed responsibility for scoring. 

Klaasen was named man of the series against Australia, scoring 242 runs in three innings with a high score of 123 not out. His runs came at an average of 242 and a strike rate of 105.67. 

“It’s been a fantastic couple of weeks for me, I had to change my mindset in international cricket,” Klaasen said after the third ODI. “I looked to play freely and it seemed to work, but I have to keep it going. Hopefully, I can cement a spot and we’ll see what happens in India. I’ve learned the hard way you can’t take runs for granted.” 

Janneman Malan, Pieter’s brother, scored a superb 129 not out in the second ODI in Bloemfontein after a first-ball duck on debut in Paarl. 

Ngidi returned to the set-up and became an integral part of the limited-overs team, which culminated in career-best figures of six for 58 against Australia in the second ODI in Bloemfontein. 

He took eight wickets in 12 overs in the T20 series against England and topped the bowling averages with nine scalps from just 18 overs against Australia. His wickets in two matches against the Aussies came at a remarkable 9.88 while he only conceded 4.88 runs per over. Nortje also backed up his Test emergence with six wickets at 22.16 in the ODI series against Australia. 

Boucher has developed the spine of a potentially good team and instilled a fighting spirit in the squad. The team’s graph has undeniably been tracking north over the course of the summer. 

“I’m very proud of the boys. We played very well in this series,” De Kock said after the 3-0 series win over Australia. 

“My captaincy debut has been busy but the guys helped me out a lot and didn’t put too much on my shoulders. We didn’t start the summer the best of ways, but this series win reminded us we can compete against the best in the world. The guys wanted to go better and it’s been great. Bringing in new players, is maybe what we needed. They’ve shown what they can do at this level.”

South Africa will take a 16-man squad for a three-match ODI series against India starting on 12 March in Dharamsala. The second game will be played in Lucknow on 15 March while Kolkata hosts the final ODI on 18 March. 

South Africa squad for India: Quinton de Kock (capt), Temba Bavuma, Rassie van der Dussen, Faf du Plessis, Kyle Verreynne, Heinrich Klaasen, David Miller, Jon-Jon Smuts, Andile Phehlukwayo, Lungi Ngidi, Lutho Sipamla, Beuran Hendricks, Anrich Nortje, George Linde, Keshav Maharaj, Janneman Malan. DM

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