South Africa’s status as Test cricket’s No 1 team is now somewhat dented, while there’s a lack of clarity about the team’s future.
The series against Australia was always going to represent the end of one era, in which heights were re-scaled – with the series wins in England and Australia in 2012 backing up those achieved four years earlier – while the No 1 ranking was further established with success at home last summer and then over the first half of this season.
Australia was the key battle, though. A side transformed during the Ashes which they hosted, they were grimly determined to prove themselves against the best in the world. There was an intensity about their play that South Africa wasn’t prepared for, with fitness doubts hanging over key bowlers and their much-revered captain – as he admitted yesterday evening – contemplating retirement.
Michael Clarke’s team showed plenty of aggression with bat – through Dave Warner – and ball with Mitchell Johnson producing a virtuoso performance in the first Test and maintaining a grip over the South Africans for the rest of the series. There was solidity in the middle order from the impressive Steve Smith – a likely future Australian captain – while Clarke and Ryan Harris showed enormous courage in the Cape Town Test.
South Africa, especially in the first and third Tests, were very flat. Getting out of the blocks slowly is something that many have become used to seeing with this side in recent years, but the lack of zip in Cape Town for the series decider, especially on that first day, was alarming.
And it wasn’t the first time this summer. It was explained away in the first Test against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi as having occurred after a long break, and the same when they met India at the Wanderers. As for Centurion, well, Dale Steyn got stomach cramps and at Newlands he pulled a hamstring.
What of the rest of the bowlers?
Morne Morkel was characteristically patchy. Brilliant in spells in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, he never made the impact in the wickets column that he made on Clarke’s body (which he left bloodied and bruised at Newlands).
And for all the talk about the pressure he builds, which allows other bowlers to take wickets, Morkel’s lack of wickets (just six at an average of 63.50) in a series where the rest of the attack struggled, was very problematic.
Vernon Philander never lived up to the high expectations he has created for himself, and this summer has been disappointing. Opposing batsmen now realise that, without the new ball, he isn’t as dangerous, and that leaving anything outside off-stump nullifies his impact, even when he’s getting the ball to wobble around.
Given his physical problems, Steyn’s 12 wickets over the three Tests was an admirable return, and his spell on the fourth afternoon in the second Test at St George’s Park was among the great periods of his stellar career.
However, South Africa’s bowlers never provided a sustained threat in either the first or third Tests, notwithstanding the problems faced by Steyn.
Given how flat the bowlers have been in four of the seven Tests South Africa have played this season, some questions have to be asked about the impact bowling coach Allan Donald is making.
Speaking generally after the series ended at Newlands, Smith spoke of the critical role that the coaching staff and management will have in forging the next era for the national side.
“There are some important things that need to be tightened a little. An environment needs to be created that can create success for these players. Russell (Domingo) and his staff have a crucial role in galvanising this environment,” Smith said.
The South African batsmen did exceptionally well to recover from the battering they took at Johnson’s hands in the first Test. AB de Villiers played contrasting innings in the three Tests to underline his reputation as the game’s best batsman at the moment. There was a return to form for Hashim Amla in Port Elizabeth, while JP Duminy probably saved his Test career with a century in the same match.
Smith was the weak point in the South African batting line-up. He was mercilessly worked over by Johnson, who dismissed him four times in the series, and distracted by personal matters off the field. The fact that South Africa were always under early pressure meant they could not dominate Australia’s bowlers.
The structural changes that will be made mean we’ll see a very different South African side for the tour to Sri Lanka in July, which will consist of two Tests. They will still be No 1 in the Test rankings, but they and the opposition know their position is a lot more fragile. - The Star