South Africa’s almost flawless Test record against New Zealand hangs by a thread following the 281-run thrashing they endured this week.
The defeat at the Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui gave the Black Caps a 1-0 series lead ahead of the final encounter in Hamilton, which starts next Tuesday.
After a loss of this nature, it is almost natural to swiftly jump to conclusions about the players’ abilities or lack thereof, and even start questioning the strength of the pipeline from which they come.
But it is almost always sinful to draw such conclusions, more so given the inexperienced nature of the touring 15-man squad.
The SA side had eight uncapped players in the first Test who were faced with a task of defending a long-standing record against some of the best Test cricketers of the modern era.
Yes, getting bowled out for 162 and 247 while the opposition breezed to 511 in their first innings will never be acceptable at this level. However, context is always the defining factor in matters of this nature.
Going out to bat for your country for the first time is one thing, but to do it without any help of a senior player batting with you in the middle is a totally different story.
And such is the story of the six debutants who took to the field at the Bay Oval.
Batters Neil Brand, Eddie Moore and Raynard van Tonder are well known as outliers and top achievers in SA’s domestic structures. However, Test cricket is a steep step up from first-class cricket.
“We produce really good cricketers, and yes, there are areas where it can improve. But I think we’ve got to provide context here, that all of these guys are inexperienced at this level,” Proteas Test coach Shukri Conrad said yesterday.
“When a Tony de Zorzi walked in to make his debut (last year against West Indies), he walked in after Aiden Markram and Dean Elgar, who’ve got many Tests behind their names, then Temba Bavuma walked in at four. He (De Zorzi) walked into the side, and there was a lot of experience at Test level.
“Whereas when (these debutants) walked out to bat the other day, they walked out with somebody who was also making his debut, and at three was also someone who was making his debut. So, I wouldn’t read (too much into this result) and go shredding our first-class game.
“Yes, they have heaps of first-class experience, but there’s a massive gap between Test cricket and first-class cricket anywhere in the world and not just in South Africa.”
The only logical conclusion to draw from such a defeat is that there is work to be done on the players’ mentality, and perhaps they need to be trained in terms of handling pressure at the highest level.
Conrad told the media that as coaches, they try to make the players understand the importance of simplicity in their approach instead of committing self-sabotage by trying too hard to impress.
“Pressure does a hell of a thing to you. You have all of these game plans, you’re prepared and you’ve done everything, and then the harsh reality strikes,” he said.
“As coaches, we try to bring clarity. We try to keep them calm and we try to simplify things. I think very often, guys come to this level and feel that silver bullets need to be landing from all over, where in fact all you do is simplify matters.
“It’s easy to say go out and back yourself when your every move is being magnified, and your technique is being cut to shreds on TV and elsewhere.
“This is what the harsh reality of Test cricket is, and this is what the players are going to have to deal with. The players will be better for the experience, and I’m sure we’ll see an improved experience in Auckland.”
South Africa had Zubayr Hamza, Keegan Petersen and David Bedingham in the batting order as the only Test-capped batters at the Bay Oval, despite only having a handful of caps to their names.
Bedingham scored 87 in the second innings, while Hamza and Petersen extended the bad habits of the past of not converting their starts into big scores.
“We’re expecting a lot from Zuby (Hamza), KP (Petersen) and Bedders (Bedingham), if the truth be told. They’ve been around a bit longer than others, so we’re expecting a lot from them,” Conrad added.
“KP played really well on day four, and in the first dig as well. But playing well has got to start playing itself out into runs scored as well.
“They are still there and thereabouts obviously, and are the guys that are either in the squad or on the fringes.”