Are the Proteas a better team this year than they were last year?
It’s difficult to say; much harder than with India or Australia, for instance.
Virat Kohli’s India team are certainly better than a year ago when they lost in this country.
Sure, they’re still struggling to find the right opening combination.
But the core of their batting is strong, they have what appears to be a reliable and very talented young wicket-keeper, a top-class spinner, and an attack that, while not the equal of the Proteas, is certainly among the best in the game at the moment.
Australia are much worse off than a year ago. They’re downright awful at the moment.
The batting is poor, and while the bowling personnel hasn’t changed, they’ve come to rely too heavily on Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon because the batsmen can’t spend sufficient time in the middle.
The Proteas beat both India and Australia last summer, playing some outstanding cricket in the process, especially in the victories against India in the second Test at Centurion and then in Port Elizabeth against the Australians.
Pakistan have offered neither the same level of quality as opponents this season, nor sustained intensity for lengthy enough periods, as both India and Australia did last summer.
So it’s difficult to judge exactly if the South Africans are a better Test outfit than they were last summer.
Dean Elgar, who stood in for Faf du Plessis as captain in the third Test against Pakistan at the Wanderers, raised the team’s ability to adapt as one area in which they are better than a year ago.
“The fact that we can leave out a big player like Keshav (Maharaj), who’s been really special, bring in Duanne (Olivier) and he gels in and applies himself like he’s been here for a long time. The ability for us to adapt is a massive plus,” Elgar explained.
In that regard, it’s the batsmen who deserve praise then, for, while missing AB de Villiers, they have been tasked with changing their mentality because the pitches the Proteas want to play on have to assist the quick bowlers.
So, batsmen won’t be churning out runs in the manner that they would like.
Still, Elgar, typically, says the batting must improve.
“With our batting, we can have a bit more hunger, we must score more hundreds, and now, because the conditions are tougher, you have to fine-tune more, knowing this is what we are going to get in the future,” he said.
And that will be critical because the next major challenge is to be more competitive in the sub-continent, and to do that, South Africa will have to bat very well.
In fact, after Sri Lanka here next month, South Africa’s next Test assignment is a three-match series in India in October, a massive examination for a side winless in their last eight Tests in the sub-continent – five of those matches ending in defeat.
The latest ICC Test rankings have the Proteas at No 2 behind India.
That position is mainly the result of a supreme record at home, which has seen South Africa go unbeaten on home soil for the last three years, winning all seven series in that period.
That tour to India and next summer’s series against England – the last team to beat South Africa here – might be a better gauge of where the Proteas stand as a Test side.