Johannesburg - The New Zealand commentator battled to find words delicate enough to say it a few days ago, so he ended up with something along the lines of, this South African cricket team was not the most heavyweight to visit his country.
In all earnestness, he had a point. The last Proteas side to tour there, in 2012, included Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Mark Boucher, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, men who, at the very least, will go down as greats in this country’s history.
Yet the current team stands on the threshold of at least matching their predecessors’ feat of that trip by winning series across all formats if they win or draw the third and final Test, which began in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Everything worth winning
This is with a captain who’s hardly the South African stereotype (Faf du Plessis), a heavy run-scorer currently dealing in singles (Amla), an addled thoroughbred batsman (JP Duminy), more than its fair share of battlers (Steven Cook, Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma), a left-arm spinner keeping out a gifted left-arm chinaman (Keshav Maharaj) and a pace bowler with a dodgy back (Morné Morkel).
And when the Kiwi commentator added all of the above with AB de Villiers’ indefinite absence, he felt he had a reason for his playing compatriots to afford the visitors a little less respect in a series in which the South Africans have won everything worth winning.
But the main reason Russell Domingo’s men have become so tough to beat is precisely because the likes of De Villiers and the injured Steyn are missing.
Before this comes across as a question mark against the sheer outrage of De Villiers’ gifts, I probably need to explain.
I’ve only been watching cricket since the early 1990s, so I haven’t seen everything there is to see when it comes to South African cricket. But for me, De Villiers’ combination of technique and flair; shot-making and power; and a snake charmer’s ability to make a bowler bowl where he wants him to makes him the best South African batsman I’ve so far seen.
Taking to the field without De Villiers is akin to doing so without Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Joe Root and Kane Williamson if you are India, Australia, England and New Zealand, respectively. Yet, psychologically, it is probably the biggest reason the Proteas have done well of late.
From good to great
The most obvious evidence is how De Villiers’ absence coaxed performances out of Cook, Elgar and Duminy when he was still expected to walk back into the team. The other is slightly different.
South African sport is hierarchical in strange ways – it’s not just about where seniors and juniors fit in, it can also be about what players expect of themselves and their team-mates.
Simply put, less talented players have been known to outsource their own expectations of who’ll save the team’s bacon to the go-to guys.
But with Amla struggling to reacquaint himself with his off-stump and you-know-who not there, each Proteas player has had to find the hero within. The biggest sign things are changing is how Du Plessis recently talked about being in the process of transforming his batting from good to great.
He used to thrive on long innings to draw Tests. As good as they are for the soul, marathon batting sessions to save Tests in which you need to score 500 to win are easier to do because nobody actually expects you will.
Holding up an end
Du Plessis sounds like he now wants to put up the numbers with the burden of expectation, which is what Bavuma and Quinton de Kock have been doing. Think of every Test in which South Africa have been in trouble in the past few series – the pair’s decent knocks have saved the day.
It’s an attitude that seems to permeate the team: Elgar’s recent performances suggest he’s asking tough questions of his ability; Maharaj’s seizing the moment to bowl the side to victory says he’s not content with holding up an end; and Morkel’s bowling after his back injury screams desire.
The main reason for all of this introspection by the Proteas is that they all know if they don’t do it themselves, there’s no superhero named after two US presidents (AB stands for Abraham Benjamin) to save them.
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