Cape Town – In just under a week’s time, it may be clearly
evident that the Proteas’ Test-team class of 2014 is already the near-equal of
predecessors in the glowing later years of Graeme Smith’s marathon captaincy
spell for toughness and resilience.
Either beating Sri Lanka in the second Test – starting in
Colombo on Thursday, 06:30 SA time – for a clean sweep or at least comfortably
securing a draw and thus the series win anyway, will clearly demonstrate to the
rest of the world that South Africa have regrouped extraordinarily well after
surrendering several steely characters in the last year or so.
Smith, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher ... these were
uncompromising, “fulcrum” Test players for so long, and then suddenly, like
dominoes tumbling, they were gone in pretty quick succession and for varying,
though largely age-related reasons.
If anyone, with good initial reason, thought it was going to
be difficult to replace them both for statistical excellence and their
combative qualities, then a Sri Lankan tour in the slap-bang in the SA winter
with some callow faces in the ranks was likely to prove a rather uncomfortable
school of hard knocks, and confirmation of the theory.
Look how England, by contrast, have tumbled in fortunes
since shedding once-staple surnames like Strauss, Trott and Pietersen, exposing
a fairly soft underbelly for the time being.
Instead the Proteas -- relative rookies and all – have thus
far surpassed expectations in ‘Lanka (traditionally not always their field of
dreams), by first pinching the one-day series against the odds and now going
into the last Test aiming to seal those honours too with a decisive kill.
Be sure of one thing: if the home team bounces back with a
win at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground, it will greatly temper that hitherto
satisfying state of affairs.
I hate to say it – cough, splutter – but those who love
every chance to brand South Africa “chokers” will be out in gleeful force anew
and the entire tour will be downgraded from outstanding to just decent (1-1 in
the Tests would still not be a bad result, remember).
But if Hashim Amla’s team, many of whom straddle both forms
of the game, return victorious on each front, the trip will deserve to go down
as pretty close to, say, the historic Australia 2008/09 safari for its fabulous
That was when, under Smith’s command, the Proteas won the
Test series 2-1 against expectation (SA’s maiden triumph Down Under) and then
under Johan Botha’s leadership rubbed salt into Aussie wounds by claiming the
On this latest venture, a “double whammy” seemed highly
unlikely upfront, particularly given the anticipated vulnerability on the Test
terrain as South Africa painstakingly acclimatised to the absence of the
aforementioned trio of legends.
But it is now just a tantalising five days or so away,
assuming the Proteas hold their nerve suitably in Colombo.
The significance of knocking over Sri Lanka in their own
habitat right now, if it happens, should not be under-emphasised.
I was reminded of that by reading a piece by Simon Hughes,
the English television and print media critic and former Middlesex seamer who
played for Northern Transvaal in the old Currie Cup days, in the latest
(August) issue of The Cricketer
magazine from the UK.
Writing after the ‘Lankans had upset England 1-0 away in a
similarly two-Test series very recently, Hughes reminded of their deceptively
hard edge: “(Sri Lankans) seem the nicest people in the world ... put a cricket
bat or ball in their hands, however, and they experience a vivid
“They are ferociously competitive and hard as nails. They do
anything within the laws of the game to try and win ... they make the
Australians look like koala bears.
“Their cricket is imaginative and uncompromising: (captain) Angelo
Mathews encapsulates that. He is a pleasant bloke to meet but he’s a smiling
If South Africa manage to add the Test series in Sri Lanka
to their ODI triumph, where does that leave them, then?
Pretty well placed in the “hard edge” department, you’ve got
to think ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing