Cape Town – The Basil D’Oliveira Trophy has been surrendered. The ICC Test Championship mace will be mercifully given up to one of India or Australia at the end of the latest annual cycle, a few weeks up the road.
And South Africa, thrashed in the third Test by England at the Wanderers on a sickly Saturday to lose the home series with one still to play at Centurion, are in a heap of collective pain.
The fact that the Proteas have gone into some sort of descent, following the retirements in fairly quick succession of a handful of greats and injury woes to one or two existing key customers, is no huge surprise as they navigate a necessarily transitional period.
But the speed of the decline is unacceptably scary: no wins from their last nine Tests, including five defeats, tells a hurtful tale, and does not reflect well at all on the team or their coaching staff.
Given their present flakiness, AB de Villiers’s troops are starting to look as though they have regressed to a humdrum mid-table outfit in the world pecking order – they could be ranked around fourth before you know it anyway -- and that would have been considered an unfathomable scenario not much more than a year ago.
Mass, catastrophic batting collapses have become all too commonplace, and there was another of those on Saturday as what shaped up as a gripping contest at lunchtime suddenly turned one-way traffic with a resurgent Stuart Broad (6/17) feasting royally on vulnerable, whimpering prey.
South Africa’s second innings of 83 all out in 33.1 overs amounted to their second-worst total of the post-isolation era – only just beating off the record low 79, funnily enough also in 33.1 overs, at Nagpur in late November.
There are many other serious head-scratchers, but the Proteas clearly need speedy solutions to their wretched batting imperfections, in particular.
One absolutely necessary step toward righting the distressed ship now is the call-up -- which some have been strongly urging for several weeks or even months -- of specialist opening batsman Stephen Cook.
The Proteas have given the relatively makeshift Stiaan van Zyl a reasonable opportunity to establish himself at the top of the order, without success.
Van Zyl has not been the sole cause of all South Africa’s ailments, that is for sure, and at some point the 28-year-old Cape Cobras left-hander may well challenge again for a more suitable berth a bit lower in the order, where he has looked much more comfortable previously.
But his scores as a Test opener make for unedifying reading, featuring a total of 156 runs in 11 innings at 15.6 and a top knock of 34.
Rilee Rossouw is the next-in-line batsman in the current Proteas squad, but also not a dedicated opener and the selectors would win very few friends among purists if they decided to give him a crack as Dean Elgar’s partner rather than summon a specialist.
Despite being no spring chicken at 33, Cook is the obvious candidate, especially as the Lions stalwart is the first player past 400 runs after three Sunfoil Series matches, and sports two centuries in his average of 83.
He also restores a right-left balance to the partnership up front, which helps to unsettle strike bowlers a little.
The fact that it will sadly be a dead-rubber affair at SuperSport Park from Friday is no bad thing for Cook if he does get his logical debut, meaning he can feel his way into international cricket under slightly less pressure than would ordinarily be the case.
It would also only be fair to assure him he also has at least the next series – two Tests at home to New Zealand in early spring – to show his mettle at the loftiest level, after amassing 11,332 runs in the first-class fold since 2000/01.
With this series a lost cause, it seems to make little sense for the Proteas to rush normal bowling spearhead Dale Steyn out of his hyperbaric chamber: rather get him 100 percent right for future challenges after a frustrating period of niggles or worse setbacks for the ageing fast bowler.
That said, the incumbent attack is showing its naivety, even as Kagiso Rabada’s burgeoning development – he earned his maiden Test five-for on Saturday before being upstaged by Broad – is at least some cause for genuine optimism.
At the Bullring, England’s bowlers collectively eclipsed their counterparts by some distance for discipline and intelligence on the helpful track, and both of Chris Morris and the wild and woolly debutant Hardus Viljoen gave away runs far too easily.
The latter’s place looks especially tenuous for Centurion; space must be made for Kyle Abbott’s patient, fuller-length formula at a ground where he had such striking success (9/68) in his maiden appearance against Pakistan two seasons ago.
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