DURBAN – Autumn killed the summer with the softest kiss, Jake Leonard wrote. A complicated South African summer of cricket is finally over, and not all of the kisses during the season were of the delicate touch.
The Titans continued their domestic dominance, but it is always the Proteas who are our ultimate barometer for the health of the game. In often trying times, the Test side has shown that they have that quintessentially South African ingredient of gees by the bucketload.More than once, violent changes in personnel – or priority – within the national team threatened to derail the journey to redemption that the side had embarked upon in July, after a sincere meeting of men to draw lines, and renew ambitions.
No one quite knows what was said in the bosberaad, but it is clear that it was necessary. In the wake of that sit-down, the Test side has been in rude health, even without the services of South Africa’s most gifted player, AB de Villiers.
The mercurial De Villiers, now 33, has made public his wish to manage his schedule until the 2019 World Cup, a decision that was met with public confusion and concern. In the wake of Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw turning their backs on international cricket, De Villiers’ Test sabbatical may have sunk a team with shallower reserves of character.
Take Virat Kohli out of Test cricket for India. How about Joe Root from England, Steve Smith from the Aussies, or Kane Williamson from the Black Caps? They all become different teams, with a massive hole in the heart of their batting order.
The Proteas that play under Faf du Plessis, however, seem to have grasped the concept of getting on with the job in front of them. The rest will take care of itself. De Villiers, of course, has left a hole, and the repair work of that area is still an ongoing process. Importantly, it hasn’t been used as a crutch to explain shortcomings.
The same could be said for Abbott’s departure. He had seemingly come into his own with the ball, in all formats, but his mind had already been made up before the successful trip to Australia. As he celebrated his man-of-the-match and moment award into the small hours in Hobart, he knew deep down that it was the last series of significance that he was playing for his country.
Abbott finally confirmed his change of heart to the rest of the nation at the turn of the year at Newlands, by which time South Africa had wrapped up the series against a brittle Sri Lanka side. The sub-continent side was a mediocre filling in a sandwich of far weightier Antipodean slices, at the start and end of the summer.
South Africa were magnificent when they needed to be in Australia, digging in when they needed to, and sticking the knife in when the opponent’s jugular was availed. They found new heroes, too. Keshav Maharaj’s ascension to the senior side was met with alarm in some quarters, but the left-armer’s stock rose sharply across the summer, as he toiled away when he had to, and then became a weapon when the conditions encouraged him.
He was one of several, inspired selections by a panel that didn’t get too much wrong over the course of the summer. Their biggest concern remains at the top of the order, where they need to commit to finding a long-term partner for Dean Elgar. Despite a prolonged show of faith by the suits, Stephen Cook’s confidence withered away all season, and poor Theunis de Bruyn confirmed that he is a middle-order man, and not equipped to bunt out the new ball.
The other concern is the prolonged silence from the blade of Hashim Amla, a man who has been the rock of the side for most of his career. Below him, JP Duminy has also endured a season of frustration, and he will know that there is a gaggle of young stars chomping at his heels, after rich pickings in the domestic scene.
A third successive Test series victory in Australia was the undoubted highlight, but drubbing the Aussies 5-0 in a one-day series, and also outlasting a decent Kiwi outfit 3-2 in another 50-over tussle were also notable triumphs for the Proteas.
The 50-over unit, led by De Villiers, looks to be a machine that is getting itself into fine working order, just in time for the latest opportunity to strike gold. The Champions Trophy is getting ever closer, and South Africa are again marked as the sincerest of contenders.
In 2016/17, the landscape in South Africa shifted, and there was a similar reshuffle within the national cricket team. Faf du Plessis has displayed a penchant for leadership, even if his choice of after-mint was ridiculously called into question by some quarters in Australia.
In the absence, or amidst the struggles, of veterans, the likes of Kagiso Rabada and Quinton de Kock have assumed the role of senior players, swimmingly, and there have also been some strong additions to the squad during the past campaign.
The autumn may have come with temporary respite, but it is to winter that South Africa now looks to. There, in the heart of England, they will hope to fulfil their destiny with a kiss of some silverware.
Player of the season: Quinton de Kock
His stock continues to swell in every format. Dynamic, destructive and devilishly gifted, De Kock is now one of the world’s very best players. He sets the tempo with the bat, be it at the top of the order in white-ball cricket, or providing the impetus in the middle-order of the Test side. Even with nine, fully-functioning fingers, he is indispensable. At 24, he has the world at his feet.
Find of the season: Keshav Maharaj
Four seasons ago, Maharaj was out of favour with the Dolphins’ selectors, and playing amateur cricket. He resolved to slow down a bowling routine that had got flatter and faster, thanks to a diet of limited-overs cricket that placed emphasis on run-saving, in lieu of wicket-taking. His road to the top shows that anything is possible, and he has grown in confidence, thanks to a captain sensitive to the needs and fears of a spinner, and an attack that is always asking questions at the other end.
Moment of the season: Temba Bavuma’s run-out
Temba Bavuma’s run-out of David Warner was the catalyst for an incredible victory in the first Test in Perth, and its athleticism and audacity have not been blunted by time. It stopped David Warner and Australia dead in their tracks, and South Africa went on to complete one of their most satisfying Test victories, given the circumstances. Bavuma saw it as nothing more than doing his job as a fielder, but the world looked on, and considered it alongside another famous run-out in Australia, 25 years before that – by another livewire South African fielder. Those who saw it will never forget it.