From the foothills of Table Mountain, on a sun-lit January afternoon, South African cricket began another long journey. A journey of revival.
Written off before the series, ridiculed after the hammering in the first Test, stuck in an endless wheel of transition, afflicted by administrational chaos and coups, South African cricket seemed slipping down the slope of perdition, instilling fear that they would never be the unbendable force they once were. There were distant echoes of the decline of West Indies and Sri Lanka. There was fear and doubt that cricket would lose one of its historically strong teams, at a time when the chasm of standard between teams is getting wider than ever before.
In times to come, the afternoon they beat India to win the Test series could evoke different feelings. A false dawn perhaps. The last flicker of the flame before it dies out, or an illusion of revival. For now, it offers hope and light. It, now, has the potential to be an era-defining series for them, as it was for India in the famous 2001 win against the then World No. 1 team Australia, when they bounced back from a thrashing in the opening Test to win the series, heralding a fresh brand of Indian cricket. Or like how the Ashes win in 2005 altered England cricket.
There were abundant question marks when South Africa started the series. But as it wound up, they have found answers to many. They craved a leader, and found one in Dean Elgar. Understated and unassuming, ice-cool in crises and controlled in showing emotions, he has a streak of cussedness like one of his predecessors Graeme Smith, who himself assumed reins of a team in turmoil, and turned into marble. “I see captaincy as a privilege, not a burden or curse … I never ever run away from pressure,” Elgar had told this newspaper prior to the series and has walked that talk ever since.
Elgar, in a sense, embodies the soul of this team. He is someone who has succeeded despite his technique, not because of it; he has known his limitations and worked within them. So has been this South Africa team — it’s not without flaws, but worked a way around them. Not for once in this series, or since taking over a team depleted by retirements, and with persistent noise of administrative anarchy brewing behind it, has Elgar cribbed or carped. His unbeaten 96 in the successful fourth-innings chase in the second Test at Wanderers – like Graeme Smith’s 277 at Edgbaston in 2003 – could be the flashpoint of a turnaround. Elgar’s match-winning knock gave his colleagues and country the belief that they could win the series, that they could fight back from any dire situation.
There were several times in the Cape Town decider that the hosts were on the back foot and chasing the game, or as Elgar remarked “thrown under the sword”, but they seldom surrendered, rather fought back. None as instructive as how they broke the Cheteshwar Pujara-Virat Kohli stand in the second session of the first day.
It was young Marco Jansen who terminated Pujara, who looked in total control. The beanpole left-arm seamer has been one of the discoveries of this series, and would no doubt make this Proteas pace pack deadlier. For a 21-year-old with limited first-class exposure, he has most tools in his repertoire. Awkward bounce that comes with his height, the skill to move the ball both ways (upright seam for the away-goer and scrambled one for the bend-backer) as well as make the ball hold its line, adeptness at interchanging lengths, and slipperiness. His steep bouncer reminded one of New Zealand’s Neil Wagner, a player South Africa has lost.
Jansen’s temperament impressed as much as his craft — after the early nerves, he settled in smoothly and was barely overawed, quickly judged the lengths he needed to pursue on different wickets and make quick amends in case he erred. Remarkably, nine times in 18 spells did he take a wicket in his first over.
Combine the left-arm quick with Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje, and South Africa have a potentially world-beating bowling nucleus. Throw the ever-improving Lungi Ngidi into the mix, and South Africa could torment the finest of batsmen across conditions. All of them had their series-shaping moments, and would ripen in the days to come. Rabada is still 26, Ngidi a year younger and Nortje 28. The best years might be ahead of them. Duanne Olivier wasn’t his past self, operating at a lesser pace than before, but South Africa don’t have to fret too much even if he doesn’t improve as they are bound to get their fastest man Nortje back soon.
But pace bowling has seldom been a worry; it’s batting that has been their tender spot. But a hero has risen — Keegan Petersen, who at 28 is not as young as Jansen, but could be their middle-order cornerstone for the next four-five years at least. His emergence has come at a time when they seemed drained of alternatives to replace retired stalwarts AB de Villers and Faf du Plessis. It’s presumptuous to compare him with the duo, but he seems the most compact batsman his country has produced in the last five years. Technical soundness, temperamental nous and stroke-making aptitude, he seems a complete package.
Together with Temba Bavuma, who finally seems to realise his potential, and Rassie van der Dussen, who has typical pugnacity of South African batsmen like Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy, they could plug holes in the middle order. Quinton de Kock’s heir, Kyle Verreynne, barely made a substantial score with the bat this series, but is highly rated and commands a domestic first-class average of 50.
Pieces falling in place
All of a sudden, South Africa seems a far more competitive team than it was thought to be. Or it’s just that Elgar and the support staff have galvanised a bunch of largely unproven youngsters into a winning lot. “Got a young, talented group. Every day in this environment, we’re gaining this experience. Unreal to see how a group that doesn’t have the repertoire or names can gel together as one,” Elgar said at the press conference, before he added with a faint grimace: “There’s more work to be done.”
There, indeed, is more work to be done. The series triumph is more like a foundation rather than a beautiful building, a start rather than a destination. They need their batsmen to start scoring hundreds — only Bavuma among their middle order has one — and they need the talented Aiden Markram to rediscover his touch. But the progress they have made in the series, the promise they had demonstrated in the last fortnight portends happier days for South African cricket.
As much as individual quality, they have found resolve and resoluteness, belief and togetherness, the virtues that would keep them on their path towards glory. And if they indeed realise their promise and build on their progress, retrace the steps to greatness again, they would reflect back on this sun-lit afternoon on the foothill of Table Mountain.