January 4, 2012

Small peaks, deep valleys

South Africa's 2011 had more heartache than happiness. They unearthed an exciting new fast bowler but remained trophy-less on the world stage

The beginning of South Africa's 2011 looked strangely similar to its end. A year that started with disappointment ended with it. In between was an emotional ride on a rough sea, which yielded too few results and threw up too many unanswered questions.

After a gritty effort to draw the January Test against India in Cape Town, South Africa earned some confidence with a 3-2 win in the ODI series. The victory put them on track for the World Cup, a tournament they entered with a plan to have three frontline spinners, including Pakistani-born leggie Imran Tahir, two left-armers and a solid batting line-up, albeit without a big-hitting No. 7. They cruised past West Indies and Netherlands but were tripped up by a tricky pitch and an England side willing to scrap with all they had in Chennai.

The defeat brought South Africa back to earth and they responded with an out-of-this-world performance against India in Nagpur. The aura that surrounded the team after the win was one that said they could go all the way. Convincing wins over Ireland and Bangladesh saw South Africa top their group, and the quarter-final draw paired them, favourably, with New Zealand.

Then, horror unfolded. A batting collapse saw South Africa lose the un-losable and return home empty-handed. Graeme Smith, in his last tournament as ODI captain, did not accompany the team but flew to Ireland, to propose to his girlfriend, sparking the wrath of a nation.

A seven-month break followed, bringing with it new brooms with which to sweep the dust that built up over the longest break the national team had had in 14 seasons. World Cup-winning coach Gary Kirsten was put in charge of his home country and chose former national fast bowler Allan Donald, whose bags were already packed for New Zealand, and Warriors coach Russell Domingo to be his aides. AB de Villiers was announced second in command of the Test team and captain of the ODI and T20 ones, with Hashim Amla as his deputy. The new appointments were expected to bring some fresh air to the landscape, but come October, the only thing that blew in was the same stale breeze.

In a cruel twist, de Villiers was unable to play in his first series as captain, against Australia, after breaking his finger during training. Amla was put in charge of the limited-overs side, which drew the two-match T20 series and lost the ODI contest 2-1.

Redemption finally came in an epic Test match at Newlands, when South Africa beat Australia inside three days. Vernon Philander impressed his home crowd with eight wickets on debut, and Smith and Amla both scored hundreds in the chase. The Wanderers provided a longer contest, one that South Africa could have won. Despite Philander's continuing heroics with the ball and a second century from Amla, South Africa fell short and drew the series. There was no third Test to decide the winner between the two old foes.

South Africa's final assignment was thought to be a relatively simple one, against Sri Lanka, and it started off that way. They rolled the subcontinental team by an innings and 81 runs on a green top in Centurion and got to Durban ready to overturn the jinx which has seen them lose the last four Tests there.

Sri Lanka had other plans. A much-improved outfit gave South Africa one of their most embarrassing defeats, a 208-run thrashing - their first win on South African soil - and showed South Africa how to rely on strength of mindset, something the hosts have still not been able to decipher.

The events that most damaged South African cricket in the last 12 months took place off the field. Cricket South Africa has been embroiled in a bitter boardroom battle, resulting in a vote of no-confidence in former president Mtutuzeli Nyoka twice. The matter has now escalated to a ministerial inquiry. The squabbles may not have actually spilt over to the field but there is no doubt they have soiled the image of cricket in the country. With an administration in chaos and a team struggling for an authoritative identity, South Africa enter 2012 with a repair job to be done, both on and off the field.

High point
Most of South Africa's cricketers said the last time they saw 21 for 9 on a scoreboard was when at school games, and they could barely believe it when it appeared it up in lights during Australia's second innings at Newlands. On a pitch that was not nearly as hellish as the figures suggest, Philander, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel inflicted four ducks on Australia. Only two batsmen managed double figures as they were shot out for 47.

Low point
A collection of green, yellow and white bags lay forlorn at Dhaka International Airport on the morning of March 26. The team that owned them was leaving Bangladesh that day, wishing the day before had been a dream. For the sixth time, South Africa failed in the 50-over showpiece, but this time the disappointment had a different sting. With a squad tailormade for the conditions, big talk and even some big action in the group stage, many thought they would defy destiny. But they didn't. Smith appeared to be worst affected and was booed at every venue around the country when the local summer started.

New kid on the block
He is closer to a comeback kid than a new kid but Vernon Philander has been South Africa's find of the season. After plugging away in the first-class set up for the past two seasons, during which he has taken 94 wickets, he was rewarded with a national call-up which paid enormous dividends. In his first three Test matches, Philander took 24 Test wickets, using his consistent fourth-stump line and questioning length. A knee injury prevented him from playing the last Test of the year but he should be back for South Africa's tours in 2012. The real newcomer is young tearaway Marchant de Lange, who took the best figures by a bowler on debut this year in the Boxing Day Test. de Lange consistently reaches speeds of over 140kph but will need to fashion his raw pace into real skill in the coming 12 months.

Fading star
A common joke in a South African commentary box is that Mark Boucher will one day have to be wheeled out behind the stumps in a chair because he will play until he is old enough to need one. With no clear successor in sight, Boucher is continually afforded to the opportunity to prolong a career that some feel should have ended a few years ago. His record-breaking efforts continue but one has to wonder: for how much longer?

What 2012 holds
South Africa had a fairly light load in 2011, with just five Tests, a World Cup and a smattering of ODIs. Despite the sparse match time, the squad was under severe mental strain, as they choked in an ICC tournament and played intense Test cricket against India, Australia and Sri Lanka. The next 12 months will see a packed schedule. South Africa visit New Zealand, England and Australia and have to compete in an ICC World Twenty20, before hosting New Zealand and Pakistan. It is a year filled with opportunity, to go top of the Test rankings and to win an ICC trophy, but is also a year filled with pressure that South Africa will have to find a way to deal with.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andy1102 on January 7, 2012, 7:28 GMT

    To all of the Smith haters out there: in the last 13 innings he has scored 446 runs @ 37.17 including one hundred and a fifty, his opening partners have scored 438 runs @ 33.69 including one hundred. So, while his average is not his usual high standard it's not terrible. I would say that Smith's slightly poorer form in the last year comes down to the fact that the opening combination is not settled. With Petersen scoring a good hundred this test I think that we must give them time to form a good understanding as partners. So for now lay off Smith's batting!

    As to his captaincy, the day is coming when he wil need to hand over to AB and I think it is sooner rather than later but for now let AB settle down as the ODI captain.

  • Amol_Gh on January 6, 2012, 9:37 GMT

    LillianThomson: ("Steyn has lost his zip", "Kallis and Smith have lost their grinding consistency with the bat" ???!!) Your comments about a "declining" SA team and the reasons for it, was supposed to be JOKE, I think. No need to counter those points of yours. They are not worth being attacked. I'm not surprised that your most analysis on this page was way wrong. But what I'm surprised about is why are you using an Aussie name when you are a Pakistani. You can't deceive me, bro. I have been observing a lot of comments and their trends carefully since the last one year. Better luck next time.

  • LillianThomson on January 5, 2012, 1:42 GMT

    I find RandyOz's comments bizarre. I may feel that Smith and Kallis are in the early stages of decline, but Amla is 28, De Villiers is 27 and Smith is an 'old" 30. Australia's bowlers do okay at home and in SA, but their only current batsmen younger than 30 are Marsh, Warner, Cowan and Khawaja - need I go on? We've just seen that Australia and South Africa and New Zealand are all pretty evenly matched currently at Test level.

  • dummy4fb on January 5, 2012, 1:13 GMT

    Mark, thanks for your work behind the stumps but time to let someone else have a go. And Graeme, same goes for you. Maybe move you down the order if the experiment with Rudolph doesnt work out. If not, not even AB can save you.

    Keep Kallis wrapped in cotton balls. We need him for a year or so more. Bring back Duminy and give him an extended stretch. Persevere with Tahir; he's actually pretty good & wants to play for RSA.

  • LillianThomson on January 4, 2012, 22:33 GMT

    @Mahjut - I incorrectly overlooked Amla - South Africa still have two class batsmen who haven't passed their peak. But Kallis cashed in yesterday on an easy track where every other batsman has scored huge runs too - the match position after two days is 729-6. I don't think that South Africa is a bad team. But from 1967-1976 they would have been the world's best, and while they were exposed by the rebel West Indians in the early 80s they have probably hovered between being the world's number 2-4 Test team ever since. But they have too many weak links now - Peterson, Rudolph, the remains of Mark Boucher, Morkel and Tahir for starters, but also Philander is still an unproven quantity outside South Africa.

  • Vista12 on January 4, 2012, 22:22 GMT

    @LillianThomson - you either dont know your cricket or you are just negative towards South Africa. To touch on some of your points

    1) "De Villiers is the only class batsman" Amla and Kallis are both ranked higher than AB in the test rankings - fact. What is your definition of class - someone you like?

    2) "Of the teams in transition, Australia and Pakistan have rebuilt their bowling stocks and have emerging young batting talent. South Africa, like India and Sri Lanka, finds it's cupboard quite bare." We have 4 quality young fast bowlers. Who have Australia got in their young batting ranks - Hughes, Khawaja (who have both been dropped), Marsh & Cowan are 29 years old (older than Amla and De Villiers) and Warner is the only young batsmen to come through. We have Elgar, Rilee Rossouw and numerous others coming through with all our batsmen (bar Kallis) being able to carry on for another 5-8 years at least. I thought this site was for people who knew their cricket?

  • hhillbumper on January 4, 2012, 21:15 GMT

    Randy Oz: Lost to NZ and South Africa.You are wallpoing an average Indian team but who hasn't.Concentrate on your own issues mate and judging by your posts you seem a bit bitter.By the way what do you call an Aussie at a world cup final.Umpire

  • Shan156 on January 4, 2012, 19:53 GMT

    @RandyOZ, worry about your own team mate. Just because you are doing well against easy opposition atm doesn't make your team world beaters. Remember your team lost to even NZ. And with that top 3, you are unlikely to trouble England in 2013. Ponting and Hussey may well be gone by that time. Even if you think you have a decent bowling attack, who is going to score runs for you? SA are losing at home to SL of all teams. They are a highly inconsistent outfit and I expect England to win the series even though SA will be way tougher to beat than Australia:-)

  • rahulcricket007 on January 4, 2012, 17:31 GMT


  • harshthakor on January 4, 2012, 15:28 GMT

    South Africa lacks the match-winning killer instinct consistently like they showed in the World cup quarter finals,the 3rd test of the last series against India and the 2nd test of the recently concluded series against Australia.Their middle order batting has a tendency to collapse and lacks stability.

    One has to remember s.Africa's oustanding comeback in the 1st test of the last series against Australia bowling them out for 47 and winning the game.Overall I would credit the Proteas of being a gallant loser in one of the most enthralling test matches of modern times when losing by 2 wickets in the 2nd test of the 2 match series against Australia.The pendulum constantly changed one way or the other.

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