It was only a year ago that South African cricket was in crisis mode. The Proteas had lost successive Test series to India and England, the captaincy was being juggled between Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, and from being holders of the No 1 ICC ranking the Proteas nose-dived to No 7.
But now under the astute leadership of Faf du Plessis the Proteas have won four successive series and have climbed back up to No 2.
However, with a massive tour to England looming later this year, Zaahier Adams asks the pertinent questions of just how good is this Proteas team really …
What has been the major reason for the Proteas’ Test resurgence?
Key bowlers returning from injury. No Test side can hope to be successful against major Test nations should they lose the class of new-ball bowlers such as Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander in tandem. But that is what the Proteas had to contend with 12 months ago against India and England. And although Steyn’s return was limited before he broke down again with a long-term shoulder injury in Australia, his impact was immense in the short period he was on the field in the home series against New Zealand.
Equally, Philander has been all class since making his comeback against Australia and been virtually unplayable on green-tinged surfaces that aid his type of seam bowling. With Morne Morkel also bristling upon his return to the Test side inNew Zealand it all bodes well as long as Kagiso Rabada can stay fit after all his upcoming Indian Premier League commitments.
How big of an influence has Faf’s leadership been?
Du Plessis, it can be seen in hindsight, should have been captain two years earlier. But had that happened he might have been clubbed in India (as was Amla) and fizzled out. The selectors should though earn some praise for finally making the decision when De Villiers was ruled out of the home series against New Zealand through injury. Du Plessis had not played in the final Test of the previous season against England at Centurion, having been dropped due to poor batting form and was not an automatic choice in the Test side any longer.
But with De Villiers ruled out it opened the door for a recall, and with Du Plessis having already shown off his leadership credentials with the national T20 side, the selectors backed “the other Affies boy” and could not have imagined in their wildest dreams the move would prove this successful. Along with coach Russell Domingo, Du Plessis has developed an atmosphere in which players are challenged to perform at their optimum ability and fully understand their roles within the environment.
Is the side missing AB de Villiers?
Simple answer: Yes! Nobody would have thought the Proteas would have attained four series wins – especially an away triumph in Australia – without the brilliance of De Villiers. But that is what this team has achieved. So, why then is AB being missed? Du Plessis’s leadership has been magnificent, but the team needs his former school mate’s genius with willow in hand to solidify a struggling batting line-up.
There have been virtuoso individual performances over the past year that has resulted in getting the Proteas over the line, but the consistency that De Villiers brings has been severely lacking. The fact that the ODI skipper holds the world record for the most consecutive Test half-centuries, eclipsing legends such as Viv Richards cannot be undervalued. Equally, De Villiers is capable of getting those big centuries – even double centuries – South Africa have been severely lacking since Amla’s 201 in the 2016 New Year Test against England at Newlands.
Is the side balanced with only three seamers?
Not quite. It’s a calculated gamble that South Africa have decided upon to take 20 wickets along with spinner Keshav Maharaj. It has worked thus far with Maharaj growing in stature on the recent New Zealand tour. But there is going to come a time when the opposition target Maharaj, which will put the three seamers under immense pressure to bowl longer and more spells than they are currently doing.
The current inconsistency of the top-order is making it difficult to include a bowling all-rounder at the expense of one of the batsmen, but the bowling unit’s workload will have to be taken into consideration at some point.
Should Stephen Cook or Aiden Markram open at Lord’s?
It pains me so say it but Cook may just have to take on the English at “the home of cricket” in the series opener in July. Markram is an exceptional young talent but to expose him to the swinging Duke ball delivered by James Anderson and Stuart Broad could be doing the former SA U-19 skipper a great disservice so early on in his career.
Cook will spend some time before the series playing county cricket to acclimatise to English conditions and hopefully during that period will he be able to discover some sort of form. It’s not the ideal situation, but with Theunis de Bruyn also expected to slot into the middle-order South Africa need as much experience in their top order as they can gather.
So can the Proteas head to England and win?
Of course they can. The Proteas are undeniably the best travellers in the world having lost just one series on foreign soil in a decade. England will pose a formidable challenge but they too are a team in transition after suffering a mauling in India. It will also be Joe Root’s first major assignment as Test captain after succeeding the long-serving Alastair Cook.
How leadership will affect Root’s batting is yet to be determined. They too have problems in trying to formulate a successful opening partnership, while also depending on their wicket-keeper Jonny Bairstow to contribute major runs like Quinton de Kock does for the Proteas. South Africa have the attack to expose these weaknesses.