The sorry tale of South Africa in Test cricket

Temba Bavuma/Quinton de Kock (Image source: ICC Twitter)
Temba Bavuma/Quinton de Kock (Image source: ICC Twitter)

It was the Sher-e-Bangla National Cricket Stadium in Bangladesh. After 5 days of almost uninterrupted rain and very less cricket played, Hashim Amla and Mushfiqur Rahim shaked hands and called it a draw. This match did not assume any special significance, except that it ensured South Africa’s mind-blowing run of 9 years without a series defeat away from home remained unscratched. In an era when teams are Lions at home and Lambs outside, this streak of South Africa does not seem real.

When talking about the best Test match teams of all time, people mention the early 2000s Australia, the 80s West Indies, Indian team of this era, but this South African team is rarely mentioned. I am not saying that this team was the greatest Test side of all time, but they certainly belonged in the conversation. With Graeme Smith opening the batting along with Herschelle Gibbs, Neil McKenzie and Ashwell Prince rotating the opening spot (also AB de Villiers for while). Then there was ABD, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, Mark Boucher in the middle and lower middle order. And we know about the bowling line up – Dale steyn, Morne Morkel, Makhaya Nitini/Vernon Philander and Kallis in the bowling department. This team did not have a quality spinner, but they did not need one (shout out to Paul Adams though). This team was the most successful Test team of their era, a very dynamic and competitive ODI team and made their name in the T20 circuit as well.

Fast forward five years and that domination of South African cricket is long gone. All of the above mentioned players have retired, and the team has fallen from grace, perhaps like no other team ever has. South Africa is ranked 6th in Test match rankings and they finished as low as 8th in the WTC rankings. They had the Test format in their hands less than 8 years ago. But how did they fall here?

The team that started for South Africa just 2 years ago against Australia on March 9 comprised Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Amla, Ab de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Theunis de Bruyn, Qunition de Kock, Kagiso Rabada, Philander, Keshav Maharaj and Morne Morkel. The team that started for South Africa on 10th June 2021 against West Indies had Elgar, Markram, Keegan Petersen, Van der Dussen, Kyle Verreynne, De kock, Wiaan Mulder, Keshav Maharaj, Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi.

That is more than half of the team completely changed in a few years. And I have not handpicked matches either. On the contrary, India or Australia have changed their team hardly over the last 3 years. The most striking pattern of that great South Africa team earlier in the decade was their consistency in selecting their players and backing them. AB de Villiers averaged in the mid 30s for almost his first 40 Test matches but he was not dropped even once. Players like Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel were given chances even after they failed. Herschelle Gibbs was backed constantly despite his blow hot blow cold form. Their wicket-keeper, Mark Boucher, was not changed for more than a decade. That team was so consistent in its selection that players like Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy did not get a chance till their late 20s. And lastly they had the same captain, Graeme Smith for 10 years. Consistency in team selection and backing players is the common thread that binds all the great teams together.

This is the list of South Africa players to have made their Test match debut since 2015 – Simon Harmer, Dane Vilas, Kagiso Rabada, Chris Morris, Hardus Viljoen, Stephen Cook, Keshav Maharaj, Tabraiz Shamsi, Duanne Olivier, Theunis de Bruyn, Heino Kuhn, Aiden Markram, Andile Phehlukwayo, Lungi Ngidi, Zubayr Hamza, Wiaan Mulder, Senuran Muthusamy, Anrich Nortje, Heinrich Klassen, George Linde, Dwaine Pretorius, Rassie Van der Dussen, Pieter Malan, Dane Paterson, Beuran Hendricks, Lutho Sipamla, Keegan Petersen, Kyle Verreynne. This is a list of 28 players, and any guesses how many of them have  played more than 10 test matches? Only 7!! And 3 of them have played 10, 10 and 12 matches. The only players who have debuted in the last 6 years for the team, and are vital members of the team today are Kagiso Rabada, Aiden Markram and Keshav Maharaj. Even the most hardcore cricket fans wont be able to recognise some of these players. And that’s because South Africa did not trust any of them enough to make them recognisable.

The reason that the downfall of South Africa surprises me more than the downfall of teams like New Zealand or West Indies is that, unlike them, South Africa still has got immense talent in their ranks. Aiden Markram is one of the most beautiful batsmen to watch in the world. He has Test match centuries against India and Australia. Dean Elgar is the idle rugged partner for him, who knows very well to grind out and has the highest number of carried bats among the active batsmen. Janeman Malan and Rassie van der Dussen have taken limited overs cricket by strom, averaging astronomical numbers in their small careers so far. Their pace battery can be ranked as one of the best in the world – Rabada, Nortje and Ngidi. And then they have Quinton de Kock, one of the best keeper batters in the world (probably the best in Test match cricket).

South Africa have got talent, their board has to channelise this talent properly. Pick a captain who is young and willing, pick up players who have consistently done well in the domestic circuit and give them a long run, and they will be all set to rise again.

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