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
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
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
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
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
As they should be, if I am reading the climate even vaguely
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
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
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.
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writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing