Cape Town – Only New Zealand in their own environment stand in the way now of South Africa completing one of their most radiant post-isolation seasons in Test cricket.
The Black Caps at home … beaten.
Australia away … beaten.
Sri Lanka at home … beaten (or make that pulverised).
This team is quite unrecognisable from the one thumped 3-0 in India and 2-1 at home to England only last summer, and left in several forms of disarray and disunity as a result.
The thoroughly rejuvenated Proteas’ players of 2016/17 aren’t just a hungry bunch; they seem closer to ravenous.
If world-leading India get a clear-cut enough home series victory over the Australians – as many probably tip them to do – in February and March, the Proteas (currently at three) are highly likely to be back at No 2 before you know it, a climb of several rungs in just a few months.
They tackle the sixth-ranked Kiwis around the same time, in three Tests, and although it may not be a cakewalk – early autumn conditions could fluctuate a great deal there – are likely to be installed as favourites on present, vibrant form.
South Africa, each time under the blossoming leadership of Faf du Plessis, have won all four properly-completed home Tests this season by massive margins: the New Zealanders by 204 runs at Centurion in the spring, and then the hapless ‘Lankans increasingly more emphatically: 206 runs in Port Elizabeth, 282 runs in Cape Town, and now an innings and 118 runs in Johannesburg.
Of course we will never know what might have happened in the weather-wrecked first Test against the Black Caps at Kingsmead, when only one full innings took place in the match.
The less generous may be fairly quick to mutter something about “only New Zealand, only Sri Lanka” but you still have to do the proverbial business against whoever is placed in front of you and the Proteas have achieved that, with shoddy periods by them few and far between.
It was educative, too, hearing the words of that enormous pace asset Kagiso Rabada immediately after the Wanderers slaughter had ended on Saturday.
He said the side were annoyed that they had “slacked off a bit” in not managing to clean sweep the Baggy Greens 3-0 in Australia; they lost the dead-rubber clash in Adelaide for a 2-1 final outcome, even though that was prestigious enough in itself.
“We wanted to pitch up here,” he added, referring to the latest instance of a match contested with series spoils already settled.
What transpired at the Bullring almost showed that up as an under-statement.
Even considering the modest standard of the Sri Lankan seam attack, and the fact that much of their lone innings was based around a massive 292-run partnership between JP Duminy and Hashim Amla, the Proteas over-achieved on the challenging strip to amass 426.
Their relatively new-look, all-pace bowling division then produced respective, intense efforts marked by a hearteningly balanced distribution of wickets and, as if to confirm what a broadly polished team they are, there were some superlative catches along the way from the likes of Du Plessis, Duminy and wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock.
There was a fresh jolt in media interviews soon after the Test’s finish, with well over two days to spare, when it emerged that the future in the five-day format of nearly fit-again AB de Villiers isn’t quite as clear-cut as has been thought.
It seems a matter of “watch this space” for developments after the ace stroke-player has eased his way back into international combat via the imminent limited-overs fare against the same foes and reassumed captaincy as well.
Not many months ago it would have induced winces to imagine a Proteas Test XI regularly minus De Villiers, but even that suddenly doesn’t seem quite such a gaping chasm should he not choose – fairly unexpectedly -- to resume his formidable career in the longer format.
In short, they have fared remarkably well without him, although that is also not to say that a premature end to his presence in Tests wouldn’t be an awful, depressing blow: it would.
But there are also so many purring aspects to the overall SA engine that continued prosperity seems perfectly feasible with what they’ve got right now.
The Proteas won their last Test series in New Zealand (2011/12) more convincingly than the 1-0 score-line over three matches suggests, and a repeat phenomenon looks a reasonably good call as things stand …
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