2007 in review: South Africa January 6, 2008

Back from the brink

South Africa flirted with catastrophe in Tests, and lost the plot on the biggest stage in the limited-overs game

Steyn: second time's the charm © Getty Images

A ship's captain feels the need to rearrange the deck chairs even as his stricken vessel plummets into churning water; a man realises that the only way he is going to survive being pinned under a boulder is to hack off his trapped arm with a hunting knife. Impending catastrophe does different things to different people. South Africa's problems in 2007 weren't quite in the same league, but at times they must have sparked that brand of dread in certain quarters.

For a start, the year was bookended by home Test defeats to India and West Indies. That put South Africa in danger of losing series to sides that had never won a Test in the country before. Pakistan followed India to the Republic, and again Graeme Smith's team faced the ignominy of a home series loss. What with South Africa having lost rubbers at home to Australia and England in the two previous summers, the prospect of defeat against sides that had rarely challenged for series honours in the past rang loud alarms.

South Africa managed to pull out of the nose-dive in time to earn 2-1 victories over their Asian opposition, but we don't yet know how well they will recover from crashing to a loss in the first Test against West Indies. they managed to equalise against West Indies after a crushing loss in the first Test. But they could still lose the series.

However, even the disappointment of a series defeat to the West Indians would pale in comparison to the gloom that spread through the nation after the World Cup in the Caribbean. Other countries' supporters might have been satisfied with their teams bowing out at the semi-final stage, but not South Africa's. Especially not after they threw away a winning position in their pool match against Australia and then somehow lurched to an infamous loss to Bangladesh in the Super Eights.

Another beating by Australia in the semi-finals was almost assured, but few would have predicted the hiding that the South Africans endured. They spiralled to 27 for 5 on their way to a dismal total of 149 in which Shaun Tait and Glenn McGrath proved unplayable and claimed seven wickets between them. Australia cantered to victory by seven wickets and with 19.3 overs to spare.

Emotionally bruised, Smith's team returned home to face the repercussions of a leaked report by their fitness trainer that there was a culture of drinking in the squad. A second bombshell was the revelation that the team was riven by cliques, and that Smith himself was at the centre of the malaise.

In August, Norman Arendse was elected president of Cricket South Africa, and in some areas of the game the sharp intake of breath was almost palpable. Arendse, a senior counsel with a streetfighter's instincts, is firmly rooted in the more progressive sector of cricket administration. "With the help of some hard life lessons I think I'm very well equipped for the challenges that cricket will bring," Arendse said shortly after his election. "I hate exclusivity, I hate unfairness, I hate all those things that I wouldn't want to happen to me."

Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher would surely agree with the latter sentiment. Kallis was left out of South Africa's squad for the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 tournament, and when Boucher voiced his disapproval of that decision, he was docked 60 per cent of any match fees he would earn in the event. Kallis was originally told he was being rested. This after he had had three months of doing nothing much else besides play golf. Gradually it emerged that he was thought too slow a batsman for the Twenty20 format. Quite why he wasn't given this reason first up remains a mystery.

South Africa sailed through the tournament unbeaten, until their last group match, when they went down to India. The fact that they couldn't muster the measly 126 runs in that match that would have put them in the semi-finals at New Zealand's expense only added to the theory that they don't know how to win when it matters. That longstanding idea was turned on its head on South Africa's tour to Pakistan, though.

Kallis returned to the team in triumph with centuries in both innings of the first Test, which South Africa won by 160 runs, and another in the drawn second Test. A thrilling one-day series reached the fifth and final match locked at 2-2.

Herschelle Gibbs' 54 and Kallis' 86 bolstered South Africa's total of 233 for 9, and Makhaya Ntini and Albie Morkel shared eight wickets to complete a 14-run win.

An almost anti-climactic home series against New Zealand followed, in which Shane Bond didn't get out of the first Test in one piece and Dale Steyn sent Craig Cumming home in several pieces on his way to taking 20 wickets in two Tests. South Africa cruised to convincing victories in both matches.

That familiar sinking feeling: South Africa leave the World Cup © AFP

New man on the block
Dale Steyn was rushed into Test cricket and he faltered. He returned a meaner, keener bowler, and his 20 wickets against New Zealand were just reward.

Fading star
Time was when Makhaya Ntini was bulletproof. That time has passed, and he now appears increasingly as mortal as the rest of us. But at 30, there are several good years left in that superbly conditioned body. Perhaps the real fading star is Shaun Pollock, who found himself being eased out of the Test team in 2007.

High point
Winning on the subcontinent is never simple, and South Africa will savour for a long time yet their twin triumphs in Pakistan.

Low point
The look in the eyes of a 23-year-old Durban student who had sold most of his earthly possessions to finance his trip to the World Cup, as he surveyed the damage wrought by Australia in the semi-final.

What 2008 holds
Forget the home and away series against Bangladesh, the year brims with other, far weightier challenges, in the shape of tours to India, England and Australia.

Telford Vice is a writer with the MWP media agency in South Africa