Those series victories against India – the No 1 team in the world - and then against Australia - the first in the post-isolation period - stand as the high point for the South African team. The lows came in Sri Lanka, two dreadful defeats in Galle and Colombo and the catastrophic selection error in the second Test which saw the Proteas play without a second frontline spinner, leaving Keshav Maharaj to carry an overwhelming load. That he managed to do so speaks volumes for his fitness and determination – his 9/129 in Sri Lanka’s first innings was a remarkable performance – but it also reflects terribly on the judgement of Faf du Plessis, coach Ottis Gibson and the selectors.
South Africa’s success this year in the Test format was built around the team’s fast bowlers. Against India pitches were bouncier and quicker at Newlands and the Wanderers, where they beat India in one and lost against them in the other.
The irony, given Du Plessis and Gibson’s stance that SA want fast and bouncy tracks, is that some of their best Test performances this year came on surfaces where those characteristics weren’t prevalent. At Centurion, where the Proteas wrapped up the series against India, the surface was slow and low, leaving the Proteas players miffed. But they won any way showing great patience with bat and ball to beat the Indians.
In Port Elizabeth, where they beat the Australians, again the pitch was slightly slower, and very abrasive which made for lots of reverse swing.
In that match the mid-afternoon partnership on the third day between Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla proved to be crucial as they kept the Australian quicks at bay, before AB de Villiers produced one of the great hundreds by a South African batsman to knock Australia out.
That match also featured Kagiso Rabada’s stunning match return of 11/150, in which he cleverly manipulated the ball through the air and off the surface. The immediate aftermath of that match saw Rabada getting into hot water over his shoulder brush with Steve Smith, which led to more controversy of its own, but from a purely playing perspective it was also the match that demonstrated what a fine young fast bowler he is and should he remain fit, he’ll be mentioned among one of the greats when his career is completed.
He finished the year as Test cricket’s leading wicket-taker with 52, just two ahead of Sri Lankan off-spinner Dilruwan Perera. Rabada’s wickets came at an average of 20.07 and a strike rate of 38.2.
Maharaj was the next most successful bowler for the Proteas finishing the year with 34 wickets, Vernon Philander claimed 32, while the retired Morne Morkel picked up 28 wickets in six Tests.
South Africa’s batsmen found the going much harder in 2018. Giving credence to Elgar’s remark that he and Aiden Markram deserve to have their salaries trebled, it is the Proteas opening pair, who feature among Test cricket’s top 10 run-scorers in 2018.
Markram, with an aggregate of 672 runs, was the South Africa’s top scorer in the calendar year, 11 runs ahead of Elgar. The pair average 33.60 and 36.72 respectively for the last 12 months.
The retired AB de Villiers is the only other South African batsmen to score over 600 runs in the year, and he averaged 53.16 in the final seven Tests of his career.
Hashim Amla 510 runs, Faf du Plessis 463 and Quinton de Kock 392, round out a less than stellar year for the South African batsmen.