Johannesburg - Maybe it’s a hangover from the sporting isolation days, but South African fans can be an incredibly insecure bunch.
Win one game and we act like it was never in doubt and we’re never going to lose again, lose another one and we’re the worst nation ever to play it. Few people struggle to handle sport’s twin impostors – winning and losing – more than South Africans.
A great example of that was our reaction to the Proteas getting bowled out cheaply in their first innings of the first test against Australia in Durban. There was a collective wailing on social media about how useless the team was.
This is the same team that beat the number one ranked team in the world – India, powered by a caped Virat Kohli – 2-1 in January. Typical of our low self-esteem, we obsessed about the fact that, not only were the first two tests closely contested, the last one was lost convincingly.
The respective 5-1 and 2-1 defeats in the one-day internationals (ODIs) and T20s to the Indians became a case in point for many regardless of the fact that the Indian Premier League has turned their players into speed chess grandmasters when it comes to white ball cricket.
Too often it eludes us that things are never as good or as bad as they seem, that winning and losing can be two sides of the same coin, and explaining defeats can be a bit more complex than just that a team has gone from good to crap.
Looking at the Proteas batting line-up, it is struggling because four of the players it’s relied on for runs in recent years have struggled this season.
Apart from a big problem called Josh Hazlewood, the metronomic Hashim Amla has mislaid his timing; Faf du Plessis is playing his cricket in between injuries; Quinton de Kock is getting a taste of what it’s like to be a mere mortal; and AB de Villiers is creaking under the subsequent strain of having to carry the team like Kohli every time he goes out to bat.
Yet, amid our panic, there have been encouraging signs that the team may still be going in the right direction, if a little less obviously. Said reassuring signs were Aiden Markram’s rearguard 143 in the second innings in the first test, Keshav Maharaj’s nine wickets in the match, Kagiso Rabada’s bat out of hell spell in the first innings of the second test on Friday, and Lungi Ngidi’s outrageous promise.
As we all saw when he was handed the Proteas captaincy in his third ODI last month, Markram – a former international age group captain who seems to be a fast learner – is earmarked for great things.
But all of that amounts to nought if a player doesn’t show it against proper opponents. And few teams scream proper opposition in cricket more than the Aussies.
Rabada’s been around for so long we forget he’s still only 22, which makes him raw whether we like it or not. We won’t admit it, but his callowness shows in his penchant to drift in games and push the International Cricket Council’s buttons with over-the-top aggression.
But when he’s on, you get the kind of spell – five wickets in 18 balls for 13 runs – that ripped the heart out of the Aussie batting line-up after they were 98 without loss at one stage en route to being bowled out for 243.
Looking at Maharaj, too many South Africans don’t get what we have in him because he so unobtrusively goes about his work. What we do have is a spinner at one with his craft and dangerous on most surfaces thanks to his control and intelligence, something not many countries can boast.
The bulky Ngidi often looks like he has a lot of work to do at this level, but he has a happy knack of taking important wickets while getting there. The one thing they all have in common is that they will be inconsistent because they are young, which means their mistakes will lose games along the way.
But it would be silly for us to impose our insecurities on them to the point that their development is hindered.
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