Cape Town – More than nine years ago, in the depths of the local winter, I was in a Newlands coffee shop conducting a magazine interview with injured national team captain Graeme Smith, when he took a text message from the faraway and embattled Proteas team in Sri Lanka.
Reserving his right not to reveal its exact contents, he indicated it was from acting Test captain Ashwell Prince and giggled ruefully as he replaced the phone on the table.
“I don’t think Ashy’s enjoying himself too much over there right now,” the big squad absentee confessed.
Prince, now a national selector, had been thrown in at the deep end as skipper against a Sri Lankan side featuring the likes of Messrs Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Muralitharan in their collective heydays.
Hardly aiding his cause, another customary South African trump-card in Jacques Kallis also played no part in that two-match series.
The Lankans duly earned a 2-0 outcome in their favour, including a proper first-Test annihilation in which Jayawardene (374) and Sangakkara (287) powered their surge to a near-ridiculous total of 756 for five declared and the need only to bat once.
In many respects, the current Proteas troops are “up against it” in a not dissimilar way, particularly given that present bowling front-liner Dale Steyn has not been passed fit for what would have been a precious role in the crucial third Test against India at Nagpur from Wednesday (06:00 SA time).
The worrisomely out-of-groove Proteas, 1-0 down, must not lose the contest if they are to preserve for at least a bit longer a proud record of not having surrendered a further series in 15 on the road since those difficult, under-resourced days back in 2006.
That dogged determination for almost a decade not to buckle in enemy territory has been a core component of South Africa’s ascension to No 1-ranked Test side, and you just feel a little something will die in their ranks – not to mention give various rival comers renewed hope of hauling them in – if Nagpur signals an end of that run.
So the stakes are really high for a match which, pleasingly to many, looks like being the complete opposite to the rain-blighted Bangalore second Test from a weather perspective: little or no precipitation lurks in the long-term forecast and it should be relatively hot and sunny for the most part.
Going in minus the Phalaborwa Express, the Proteas are shorn for a second game on the trot of one of a trio of players who can currently be considered the top tier of their line-up – the others rather obviously being captain Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers.
Aggravating their unusual look of vulnerability in recent months – though some lousy Subcontinental weather admittedly hasn’t helped – is that Amla has been experiencing a slump of substantial length by his very high standards, further revealing an unsatisfactory South African underbelly in their Test XI.
If he suddenly rediscovers his brutal, crease-occupying mojo at Nagpur, on what will almost certainly be another mentally-challenging, turning and crumbling track, the Proteas will be in a much sturdier position to either strike for a levelling victory or at least go toe to toe in a more competitive draw that would take the series to a decisive final fixture in Delhi.
The admirable De Villiers has been top-scorer in each of the two SA first knocks in the series thus far, and the tourists are overdue to reassure their supporters that if he and/or Amla fail, the rest of the batting line-up doesn’t come crashing down almost simultaneously like a house of cards.
A glance at the ICC rankings for Test batsmen does little to allay the suspicion that it is “Amla and De Villiers or bust”, frankly, for South Africa if they are to amass suitably bulky totals.
The halo of Faf du Plessis has slipped a bit, considering that he has tumbled to 21st (still next best for the Proteas) on the ladder, with his ratings points having declined from a high of 710 in late 2014 to a present 644.
Gritty Dean Elgar comes in fourth from a SA perspective at a pretty distant 35th on the global chart, and the left-hander is especially due a lengthy vigil after some promising starts in the Indian series that nevertheless haven’t yet produced even a half-century at the top of the order.
Similarly the bowling attack continues to leave a strong suspicion that when the enduring standout Steyn either isn’t fit or not firing in the wickets column, what is left simply isn’t putting enough consistent fear or doubt into enemy ranks.
Naturally South African fans will wish their toughest, most proven favourites to come off in a decisive way at Nagpur.
But it will be an even more welcome development, as far as both the present and immediate future is concerned, if some “fringe” members of the Proteas team finally emerge from the mere back-up shadows and seize centre-stage.
So who wants to?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing