Cape Town – So … all square in the four-Test series with two to play.
I’ll say this with conviction: if you had offered me a couple of weeks ago that scenario from a South African perspective at the midway mark, I would have quite enthusiastically banked it.
England’s hard-earned, ultimately well-deserved 189-run victory in the lengthening shadows on day five of the glamour second contest at Newlands on Tuesday levelled things up at 1-1 and tantalisingly left no guarantees at all about which way the scales will tilt at St George’s Park (from next Thursday) and then the Wanderers.
Do cast your mind back to the problematic, immediate backdrop to the Proteas’ initial involvement in the intriguing hostilities – a situation so broadly dire that it certainly influenced my suspicion up front that the tourists were narrow favourites to win the series and, by extension, comfortably retain the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy.
Various key positions in the SA team hierarchy, following the ill-fated tour of India, were either occupied on an interim basis or not at all, the Cricket South Africa boardroom unravelled violently and amidst a flurry of damaging allegations,
more sponsors took debilitating flight, and the Test team were also hampered by the glaring lack of first-class activity as the Mzansi Super League T20 competition took precedence for several weeks in the build-up.
Eventually Graeme Smith (director of cricket) and Mark Boucher (head coach) were hurried into hot seats, and the national side, perhaps operating on an unexplainable wave of adrenaline, did superbly well to catch illness-hit England cold in the Centurion opening Test … an outcome that went some way to repelling, at least for the short term, continued carping and counter-carping about the racial balance of the side, also under a now quite white-heavy panel of mentors.
But was that SuperSport Park triumph going to be the catalyst for an onward hurtle to greater things?
Of course not.
The Proteas had been in a state of worrying decline in Test terms for many months ahead of the series, and the first task of Boucher and his lieutenants was to halt the rot before any pronounced upward movement in the team’s share price seemed feasible.
There are already signs that this process is occurring … yes, even in the just-completed New Year setback for them.
The one thing South Africa did (even as some infuriating crease misjudgements came into play in the stonewall bid, including from senior players) was to generally bear out batting coach Jacques Kallis’s contention at an advanced stage of the Test: “We love a fight, that I can promise.”
Scrap it out the Proteas – on the back foot after day two, and then staying there -- almost unquestionably did on Tuesday, to the point that they may even be a little disappointed the third Test in Port Elizabeth doesn’t begin as a back-to-back one later this week.
Cricket can be a cruel game, so although it would have been undeserved for the winning outfit at Newlands, England might just have found themselves in the field once more in the Friendly City some four days after spending four and a bit of the closing Capetonian sessions – and a sapping 137.4 overs – collectively out on the park.
That South Africa were only bowled out at 17:07 on Tuesday was one of those “positives”, cliché though it may be, suggesting Boucher is slowly, and from little time thus far, reinfusing the sort of mental toughness and tenacity that has marked some prior Proteas Test sides, including of his own lengthy era as wicketkeeper/batsman.
“We don’t mind losing … it’s the ‘how’ … and we fought hard today,” was the defiant but not inaccurate summary of captain Faf du Plessis (who, yes, could do with some weightier personal runs soon) on the field straight after that English excitement machine Ben Stokes had blown away the Proteas’ bottom order.
The major shortcomings in the current SA crop remain reasonably obvious, not least in the batting department and the continued inability to post sizeable enough first-knock totals to make life a lot less stressful as Tests grind their way onwards: 223 all out, with Dean Elgar contributing 88 (some 40 percent alone) of the runs was always going to make things precarious for the second half of the clash and SA’s “batting last” requirement.
Yet there is growth to be reported nevertheless, albeit in slightly different ways, from the likes of Pieter Malan and Rassie van der Dussen, and sweeping changes to the XI at St George’s would only amount to the sort of emotion-charged, knee-jerk mumbo from all sides of the spectrum that we are seeing more than enough of on social media around the national team these days.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing