Lady Luck late guest … but party, Proteas!

2017-03-29 13:33
Faf du Plessis (Gallo)

Cape Town – Inserting the word “arguably” might help placate harder-to-please critics, but the South African national cricket team have just completed as productive and inspiring a summer as ever experienced in the post-isolation era.

And even of all time … sorry, “arguably”.

It ended with a substantial dose of good fortune, the elements conspiring to rob New Zealand of a very powerful last-day chance in Hamilton of squaring up the Test series 1-1, instead of surrendering it by a 1-0 margin as they did.

Yet the weather gods have always been significant kingmakers in cricket; they work either wretchedly or wonderfully, and all teams – the Proteas can testify that they are no exceptions on the force-of-nature rollercoaster - experience both hallmarks over the course of time.

A pleasingly feet-on-the-ground bunch, expect the squad and their tacticians to hardly sidestep, before the next formidable challenge against England away, the expanding issue of the Test team’s patchy – sometimes at best - batting displays and the deepening concerns around certain incumbents in that regard.

But now, in assessing South Africa’s quite drawn-out (something for which they warrant a bit of extra kudos?) 2016/17 season, it is mightily pertinent to remember the backdrop to its beginning.

The Proteas were floundering - or treading water at best - in a sea of lethargic, self-induced mediocrity, having lost major Test series to India (away) and England (home), and a few months later in our winter been the worst-performing team (ie, not reaching the final) in a Caribbean one-day international triangular series also featuring West Indies and Australia.

Players, administrators and coaches were all, inevitably, under intense public fire; objects of derision.

So imagine if a glum supporter had been suggested the following, right there and then:

*That the Proteas would win their next four Test series in a row, including home and away to New Zealand, away to Australia, and a 3-0 home clean sweep of Sri Lanka.

*That in doing so, they would claw back up the ICC rankings ladder from (briefly) as low as insipid seventh to second, in time for the lucrative annual April 1 payout cut-off.

*That the side would claim 14 of 16 ODIs (win percentage 87.5) before season’s end, including successive series wins over Ireland (a once-off game), Australia, Sri Lanka (both of those by 5-0 margins) and New Zealand (3-2; that country’s first home series loss in nine).

*That they would, throughout the extended period of stirring conquest, put out teams greatly more representative of the country’s cultural fabric than ever before, and gloriously stave off any further “political” flashpoints in selection.

I believe he or she would have bitten your arm off... and all of those seemingly near-fairytales did, in fact, transpire.

Let’s not get too absurdly carried away with the warm and fuzzy stuff, of course.

It is necessary to sound a tempering note that the domestic game, naturally always a key feeder for current and future international players, struggled probably more acutely than ever to either tick the box for genuinely compelling standards or to attract meaningful spectator interest.

Crowds nationwide were, too often, lamentable – even at advanced stages of limited-overs competitions.

For all the abundant talent, both young and slightly more advanced in the present national set-up, you have to suspect a detrimental, knock-on effect from chronic franchise-level shortcomings somewhere down the line.

Also well less than desirable was seeing, in recent months, high-quality players like Kyle Abbott, Rilee Rossouw and Stiaan van Zyl – all potentially still with such strong claims for plugging various “leaks” in the Proteas’ ranks – render themselves ineligible to the SA cause for lengthy periods on Kolpak deals.

Yet even those drawbacks pale in comparison with the national team’s indisputably sublime gains over the course of the 2016/17 season, and the intensity, energy and determination (all evident even more profoundly when they were in tight spots and wriggled out) with which they went about their business, virtually day in and day out.

By extension, those qualities only suggest a harmonious, cohesive bunch, and for that it is safe to assume that the leaders - Faf du Plessis (Test, T20) and AB de Villiers (ODIs) - cut the mustard as figureheads and motivators.

Ditto the head coach, Russell Domingo.

Statistically this summer (and that’s presumably what his salary is rather heavily weighted on), he can hold his head so high.

It seems significant that you pick up a sense, in the corridors of CSA power, that they are a tad more lukewarm and hesitant now about their controversial intention, recently, to put Domingo’s berth out to tender.

As they should be, if I am reading the climate even vaguely correctly.

From beyond the dressing-room walls, I have no idea just how prodigiously or profoundly Domingo contributes technically and tactically.

What seems massively apparent is that he is a diligent, resilient soul, at least reasonably unflustered by public, past-player or media judgement of his ways, and heads up a happy crew... and that’s probably at least 75 percent of the battle won, wouldn’t you agree?

We have had our own contretemps or two during his tenure, but I like him, and his honesty, and doff my hat unreservedly to his almost unrelentingly pleasing achievements in recent months after he had once seemed greatly more destined to walk the proverbial plank.

Yes, the Test team requires some surgical intervention if it is to take the next step up to the very top of the global ladder, but there is a one-day tournament on the more immediate horizon that rightly assumes “priority” status … the eight-nation Champions Trophy in the UK during June.

It is of more importance to South Africa than just about any other country, really, given our much-publicised poverty – and related monkey on the back of the “choker” tag - since 1998 when it comes to ICC limited-overs trophies.

So will the Proteas win it? Well, let’s state the obvious: they most certainly can.

The current ODI side has many sturdy strings to its collective bow, is increasingly less haunted and infected in its fairly youthful composition by the major-tourney failings of the past, and remember this, too... De Villiers plays.

Add to his already illustrious surname those of De Kock, Phehlukwayo, Miller, Tahir, Pretorius, Rabada, Morris and others, and you automatically have the makings of a team geared to wow the neutral in English climes.

Before the Champions Trophy, there is the annual CSA Awards banquet, in an unusual Saturday night scheduling, of May 13.

I mention that occasion only because, ahead of last year’s, there were inevitable guffaws about the challenge of actually issuing the laurels, after a markedly unflattering period for the Proteas. (It did have a more sombre, eerie feel about it, too.)

This time, there will be no such cause for ridicule.

Pop those corks, why don’t you?

They do say you should make hay while the sun shines. 

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  sa in nz  |  faf du plessis  |  cricket


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