SA in New Zealand
Proteas in fine bloom for Eng
Gary Kirsten (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - South Africa can go into almost four months of Test-level hibernation safe in the knowledge that they are about as primed as they could possibly be right now for the next big challenge in England.
Invariably, there will be a hard-to-please brigade suggesting that the Proteas really did little more than they were expected to do in knocking over lowly-ranked New Zealand 1-0 in the three-Test series there.
It is an outcome which does not tell the fullest story, however, as the tourists pleasingly commanded obvious supremacy for most of the overall trip, also encompassing Twenty20 and one-day international portions, in which they earned a clean sweep of the silverware.
Seldom have South Africa displayed such focus, drive, ruthlessness and aggression over the course of an entire assignment abroad, and it was also their best phase of a summer which included visits to our shores from Australia and Sri Lanka where the Proteas were guilty of some patchy performances.
They were popular and quite clearly revered guests in the Land of the Long White Cloud, where no side on the planet can or does take triumph for granted given the fickleness and uniqueness of local conditions.
Remember that Graeme Smith’s Test unit were playing opponents tickled pink by a 1-1 outcome in a short series across the ditch in Australia, not terribly long before the Proteas arrived.
Yes, it was a little frustrating that South Africa chose Tuesday, the final day of the entire series at the Basin Reserve, to produce probably their most butter-fingered catching performance of the tour - usually a near-unfailing department - as the Kiwis cashed in on young Kane Williamson’s obdurate unbeaten century to scrap out a rearguard draw.
Then again, compare this Test to the equivalent fixture at the same venue on the last tour of New Zealand in 2003/04: then, the Proteas started a nerve-jangling last day with the game and series on a knife edge, before they got over the line to earn a come-from-behind 1-1 result.
Here, there were virtually no times at all when the Black Caps looked remotely like winning the Test to pull off an equivalent Houdini themselves from a back-foot series position.
And plenty of good judges remain adamant that had rain not wiped out the final day’s play in the first Test at often frigid Dunedin, South Africa might well have come to the Basin Reserve 2-0 to the good and playing a dead-rubber game.
Certainly the bowlers again did little wrong as a committed and bruising unit in New Zealand’s stoical second innings, with Morne Morkel illuminatingly to the fore as he snared all six wickets to fall for a career-best haul.
The unassuming customer, who scaled fresh personal heights in controlled hostility throughout this venture - an area where he fell notably short despite salvoes of promise on the 2008 England tour - joked afterwards as he scooped the man-of-the-match award that he had “bowled to Gary Kirsten’s sons in the corridor (the night before) to prove I can get wickets”.
He had gone luckless in the first innings, without a scalp to show for 20 overs of excellence, although he did bomb poor Ross Taylor out of the contest via a snapped forearm.
Suddenly the floodgates opened for him in the wickets column, including what commentator Ian Smith described as “perhaps the best back-to-back yorkers you’ll ever see” to send Dean Brownlie and Dan Vettori packing off successive balls.
Confirmation of the collective menace of the Proteas pacemen was hardly necessary anyway, but it was satisfying in many ways to get a little reminder that the incredible Vernon Philander alone doesn’t have to be relied upon for the greedy hauls.
Nor was there any longer-term harm in Marchant de Lange, who had grabbed a “seven-for” on debut against Sri Lanka, getting a sharp little reminder in his second Test (one for 151) that success doesn’t just fall from trees in the five-day arena: his promise remained obvious, and the broad-shouldered speedster has still not completed 20 first-class fixtures!
South Africa’s batting is also in sound health, especially with “spare” resource JP Duminy making the most of a rare appearance at Wellington with a century, one of five - all from different players - by the Proteas in this series.
They lurk just one rating point behind top-ranked England, currently engaged in their first Test in Sri Lanka, as they weigh up from afar the mid-year expedition there.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for coach Gary Kirsten and company will be to get the Proteas quickly back then (in the midst of our own domestic winter) into the kind of ultra-professional groove they’ve displayed in New Zealand.
If they do hit the ground running, they will have so much better a chance of emulating the 2008 series success in England - don’t forget that this will be a shorter, more intense series played a little irritatingly over only three Tests.
The first starts at The Oval on July 19, but at least there is the relative comfort of a three-county warm-up itinerary: a pair of two-day matches against Somerset and Derbyshire and a three-dayer against Kent.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing