South Africa’s national cricket team has now lost two Test series in a row. When last did that happen? It is extremely difficult to recall such a thing. The answer is 2004/05 when, wouldn’t you just know it, India (in India) and England (in South Africa) vanquished the South Africans. That is if you discount back-to-back defeats against Australia a year later. So we can say this is the first time in 11 years the Proteas have been beaten by different sides in consecutive series.
Supporters are calling for heads to roll after England’s sensational surge against South Africa secured victory inside three days at the Wanderers. The Proteas have not won a Test match since the New Year’s encounter at Newlands against the West Indies in 2015 and a scapegoat is being searched for. Perhaps now is the time that calm heads prevail.
To those who moan about management and selectors, the question really should be, when was the last time there was not just a hint of incompetence about the people in these positions? Some are blaming Russell Domingo but the reality is that in cricket the coach does not yield anywhere near the kind of influence as is seen in football and rugby. The South Africans reached number one in the world and held that position for large parts of the last decade but was it down to Graeme Smith’s leadership, the fact that Smith was armed with players like Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, AB De Villiers, Shaun Pollock, Gary Kirsten and Dale Steyn, or the magnificent mentoring of coaches like Mickey Arthur, Corrie Van Zyl, Kirsten and Domingo? I venture to say the first two options comfortably outweigh the latter. And it must be remembered, the captain runs the ship in cricket.
Now that is not to say Amla and De Villiers are the problem. Certainly not. If we were to draw up an all-time SA XI the two of them walk into the side. So do Smith, Kallis and Steyn and their absence has been felt. And badly too.
Kallis’ retirement at the end of 2013 was followed some three months later by Smith. You do not just replace those kinds of players overnight. Even the great Australian side of the late 1990s and 2000s went through a rebuilding phase after the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath called it a day. There was always going to be a time of rebuilding and the boys in green and gold had no time to properly adjust, coming up against Sri Lanka first up. New skipper Amla was superb leading his country to a first Test series win on the Indian Ocean island since 1993. After that he had an easier home series against the West Indies and then a trip to Bangladesh. The latter assignments, you could argue, did not necessitate the presence of a Smith or a Kallis.
After that a tough trip to India followed. One of world cricket’s most difficult assignments was made no easier by the absence of key personnel (read Steyn and Vernon Philander) and questionable pitches, one of which was even reported to the International Cricket Council. It was hoped the Proteas could regroup and restore order on home turf against the English. Unfortunately for them, there was still no Philander and Steyn pulled up in the first Test. Add a top six horribly out of form and a wicketkeeping question unanswered and it was never going to be the right time to run into a strong, determined England side that is possibly the best bunch the British have sent to these shores since readmission.
Contrary to the hosts, the tourists have Joe Root (averages 73.89 in his last 23 Tests), Ben Stokes (a dangerous in-form strokeplayer who clubs them at a career strike rate of 70) as well as two of the game’s premier bowlers in Jimmy Anderson (429 Test wickets) and Stuart Broad, who the casual cricketing fans in South Africa found out all about on Saturday. Considering the home side’s problems, England was always going to be the favourite for this series.
That does not excuse the situation however. Convener of selectors Linda Zondi and his team must solve the opening batting partnership. Stiaan Van Zyl and Dean Elgar average 23.00 as a pair and the fact of the matter is that the former is not an opener. Van Zyl is not a bad player. His domestic record and a Test ton on debut illustrates as much. The selectors would do well not to mess him around. Stephen Cook is an able replacement. Cook has been in superb Sunfoil Series form and while at 33 time might not be on his side, given how long cricketers play these days, he could give his country five years worth of service. That is more than enough time for the next candidate to reveal himself.
Amla and De Villiers have been inconsistent but class is permanent and it is surely just a matter of time before they come right. Faf Du Plessis has really struggled and dropping Van Zyl to five or returning JP Duminy, who hit a double hundred upon returning to domestic cricket, are two options but I feel Du Plessis deserves being persisted with. Temba Bavuma’s century at Newlands makes him a certainty at six for now. Also it does not help Du Plessis or Bavuma to be coming in with the score only around 50.
Quinton De Kock is the long-term option at wicketkeeper and once Steyn and Philander are back the bowling attack will have more balance. Dane Piedt looks a good bet as the team’s spin option going forward and it seems the country has unearthed a real gem in Kagiso Rabada. Chris Morris, Hardus Viljoen and Kyle Abbott will have to make due with bench status under this scenario but there is nothing quite as good for a team when very good players improve themselves to force their way into the side. As for Morne Morkel, it is evident he lacks the ability to lead the attack. That is not to say Morkel is a bad player. He has done well for his country for nearly a decade now but unfortunately for the Proteas, they needed a particular type of player in this hour of need and that man is not Morkel.
All in all I believe it is premature to write South Africa off and even more so to begin writing obituaries. That Australian side mentioned earlier took a couple of years to find their feet again, suffering home series defeats to the Proteas and England, both twice, along the way. A glimpse towards the east will show you that they are strong again and as hungry as ever to dominate world cricket once more. South Africa’s time of transition will soon be over and then the good times will roll once more.