December 31, 2012

Up where they belong

In 2012, South Africa reaped the fruits of labours dating back to over half a decade

January 1, 2012. South Africa are locked 1-1 in a series against Sri Lanka, having just lost the Boxing Day Test.

December 3, 2012. South Africa's Test programme for the year is complete: Played ten. Lost 0.

The numbers may seem to say it all - except that nine of those ten Tests were contested away from home. It marks South Africa's best period in the longest format, and they have the Test mace to show for it.

As deserved title-holders, South Africa's slow ascendance is proof that there are virtues in patience and planning. Putting together the unit that triumphed has taken more than half a decade, dating back to Sri Lanka 2006. That was the last time South Africa lost a series away from home.

The team that beat England and Australia on the road in 2008 contained some of South Africa's finest, and many survivors from those missions are still part of the Test team. Yet even they lacked what South Africa needed to go from good to great. Gary Kirsten has been credited with introducing the third dimension.

His work-life approach involves non-cricket activities and plenty of time off, and it has taken hold in the Test team. It has yet to extend to the limited-overs sides, which had a forgettable year, with series against Sri Lanka and England narrowly won and drawn*, respectively. It was also disappointing in that they crashed out of the World Twenty20 before the semi-finals.

The main focus was on Test cricket and it showed. After beating Sri Lanka in the New Year Test to avoid a series defeat at home, South Africa went to New Zealand needing to win 3-0 to go top. But for wet weather, they would probably have.

England was always going to be their big chance. The tour was hyped as the series of the year, and it started dramatically with Mark Boucher's horrific, career-ending eye injury. South Africa rallied immediately to win the first Test, in which Hashim Amla became the country's first triple-centurion and Graeme Smith scored a hundred in his 100th match.

The draw at Headingley meant Lord's provided the perfect backdrop for a series win. Amla, JP Duminy and Vernon Philander delivered it. Most importantly South Africa proved they could perform under pressure.

Getting to No. 1 was euphoric but South Africa sobered up with the knowledge that they would have to defend their title in Australia. It was the toughest assignment they could have been set, and until the last day of the Adelaide Test it seemed it would overwhelm them. Then Faf du Plessis and an injured Jacques Kallis put up a rearguard to rival the Battle of Dunkirk. South Africa went to Perth with a massive advantage, having mentally ravaged and physically worn Australian's bowlers down to the point where they needed a completely new attack.

Victory came on the fourth day, and with it the feeling that South Africa are a No. 1 side who have the potential to be able to stay there for longer than their most recent predecessors. Smith called the successive series wins in England and Australia "the proudest achievements of my career".

The start of a golden age, perhaps, but not everything that happened in the year gave CSA that kind of honour. The messy bonus scandal ended when Gerald Majola was dismissed in October, almost three years after the suspension of financial wrongdoing was raised. But CSA's administrative troubles are not over. The Nicholson commission (which recommended Majola be suspended and disciplined) also instructed that a new board be put in place, with more independent directors. The process has been complicated by unhappiness from the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, the governing body of sport in the country, over the selection of board members. As a result, CSA's AGM was postponed three times and will now take place before the end of the tax year, in February.

Something the suits got right was restoring corporate confidence in the game. After a 2011-12 season that began with no sponsors, CSA now have big-business backing across all formats. They are missing the support of one major establishment, though. The national broadcaster, SABC, decided not to air live Test cricket in the 2012-13 summer, for the first time since readmission, because of the cost of rights fees. Instead, it will only broadcast the limited-overs matches and show highlights packages of the Tests. Almost seven times as many people tune in to Test cricket on the free-to-air broadcaster as on the subscription channel. Now that the country has a Test team worth watching, that majority will not be able to see them in action.

The masses were also denied in a more telling sphere. No black African (the race group that makes up over 80% of the South African population and accounts for more than 40% of active cricketers at all levels, including club and school) took the field in Test cricket in 2012, an issue that was exacerbated by the Thami Tsolekile debacle. The wicketkeeper was contracted in February and told he would play against New Zealand at the end of the year, but the national selectors u-turned on that when AB de Villiers changed his mind about wicketkeeping permanently.

Talk is rife about implementing legislation to change the lack of representation. CSA's acting chief executive, Jacques Faul, indicated the matter would come up for discussion at the board meeting in January. It is a worrying issue because what it really says is that for all South African cricket's progress in the last 12 months, the biggest step it may take is backwards.

High point
South Africa climbed the Test rankings with the determination of a hiker on foot advancing up Table Mountain, and the stubbornness of the same man who, when exhausted, refuses to take the cable car. The resilience paid off. Six years of conquering territory from Australia to the Caribbean finally yielded something tangible. For a side that has constantly been saddled with labels that express underachievement, the view from the top was even more spectacular than they imagined.

Low point
Another year, another ICC event, another South African effort that failed to live up to expectation. The World Twenty20 was Kirsten's first major tournament in charge of the team, but not even he could turn their fortunes around. The strategy of a floating middle order looked more like an attempt to herd cats, and South Africa lost all of their Super Eights matches to return home empty-handed, again. In the aftermath, the T20 squad was completely revamped to add a significant number of young players, and national assistant coach Russell Domingo was put in charge of it.

New kid on the block
Seven years ago, du Plessis was almost lost to South African cricket. He pondered a county offer with a clause that would require him to qualify for England. Something in his conscience held him back. Thank goodness, South Africans will say now. His fighting knocks in Adelaide, which included a century in his first Test, showed his temperament, class and readiness to step up after seasons of trying to break out of being boxed in as a limited-overs player. Less than two weeks after that tour, du Plessis was named stand-in captain of the T20 squad to play New Zealand.

Fading star
To suggest Jacques Kallis is losing his shine would be to say the crown jewels are doing so. Even if the odd blemish appears, a little bit of polish can make them look as though they had never been tarnished at all. Lotions, potions, physiotherapy and rest have all done a mending job for Kallis over the past year, and his performances have not dimmed at all, although he has bowled significantly less than before.

He scored centuries in all of South Africa's series. He also got injured in each. In New Zealand, Kallis suffered a stiff neck and had to miss the third Test; in England he could not bowl during one of the matches because he was rendered immobile by back spasms; and in Australia he suffered a first hamstring injury. That he still has it was best illustrated by his half-century in Adelaide - runs he scored while in pain. Whether his body will continue to let him have it is what will determine the length of the rest of his career.

What 2013 holds
In two words: less travel. After the ongoing New Zealand series, South Africa host Pakistan for three Tests - which they will see as a way to extend their lead on the Test table - five ODIs and two T20s before enjoying an autumn break. The Champions Trophy will present another shot at ICC silverware. It will be followed by a visit to Sri Lanka that has been shortened to exclude any Tests. As a result, South Africa will not play any Test cricket between April and October, but their programme resumes with a trip to the UAE to clash with Pakistan again. The year may feel like it is only starting as it ends when India travel to South Africa in December for another marquee contest.

December 31, 08:12:03 GMT: South Africa did not lose their one-day series in England, they drew it. The error has been amended

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on January 3, 2013, 12:01 GMT

    The Thami Tsolekile 'debacle" is a nonsense argument. The player averages 29 in 136 first class games and 21 in limited overs cricket. Why doesn't the author acknowledge that he would be a very weak #7 in a test side. He only has 4 100's. Q de Kok has played 15 matches and has 4 x 100.

  • Dummy4 on January 3, 2013, 7:51 GMT

    Yes SA are no.1 but they still seem to lack something after all these years,an attacking spinner,not to forget Paul Harris was good but they need better to win in Asia and the UAE. And what is this about Thami,again CSA is pulled into the colored players quota..Whoever plays well deserves their place and i think that Thami with his recent scores deserves his place.If Abde really has respect for his fellow country men he should let Thami don the gloves..

  • theo on January 2, 2013, 22:48 GMT

    @Husain Sattar... I hear your comments mate. I see alot of "if" and "would" and "freak performances" in your statements. The truth is, those are all speculative words because the fact of the matter is, SA did not lose, they won. If there are as many 'freak performances' as you describe, then SA seem to have a habit of doing this regularly, making it... normal! :-) I refer you to what Ponting said in his retirement speech... that during the great reign that the old Aus had, there were many teams that put themselves in positions to win against them, but none had the ability to actually take the next step, and actually do so. That's exactly what this SA team did.... fight, and win. Through winning a number of tests inside 3 days, executing teams in their own backyards, and fighting hard when all seems lost, this unit is the first to be truly feared since the Aus of old. I hope other nations rise up to the challenge... :-) keep weel

  • Smith on January 2, 2013, 15:14 GMT

    England and South Africa are by far the top performing Cricket teams in World Cricket right now, the rest are just weaker then them from all sorts of levels especially in Test Cricket.

  • Dummy4 on January 2, 2013, 13:51 GMT

    Similarly in Austrailia. They were outplayed, Aus needed a few wickets to win the first test on the last day. Little bit more time, they would have. They then scrape through by the skin of their teeth in the second test, nearly losing it. Faf Du Plessis bats for hours, on debut. Freak perfomance. The third test, they Are bowled out early, then Aus does the same. We then have the freak performance again Hashim Amla, scores nearly a hundred in a session posting a run a ball near 200. So basically, on two days of out of the whole test series, they outplayed Austrailia, and yet its taken as if they were dominant. Is this how the best team in the world plays? Just about nearly beaten till day 2 of the third test in a 3 match series? SA got lucky with some wonderful freak performances, from Hashim Amla, Faf Du Plessis,etc. But for a no 1 team their performances are erratic. They say this is what gary has added to the team. mental toughness. Ya right. His only been in charge for a second.

  • Dummy4 on January 2, 2013, 13:45 GMT

    This South African team is very good, but overrated in the context of things. World cricket is at a real low, with most teams restructuring. Austrailia, India, New Zealand( clearly from this test) Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, West Inidies, who can really challenge SA? These countries dont even have bowlers to bowl teams out nearly once.

    Gary Kirsten took over at a time, when it was easy to beat most countries. The victory in England wasnt as good as it looks. Hashim Amla does something phenomenal in test one. Englands bowlers were tired from previous series, and looked clearly out of sorts. Test two could have been a different story with a bit of luck for England. Pieterson shined. Test three hes dropped, the whole team is in dissarray from the debacle. So what happens? Some freak performances. Duminy and philander make tons of runs, and philander takes wickets. I think if I remember correctly both duminy and philander made nearly two hundred runs collectively in both innnings.

  • Dummy4 on January 2, 2013, 7:26 GMT

    Oh come on jb633 - not British so we dont understand?

    Incidentally SA sent a lot of soldiers to both World Wars including my grandfather who fought (and was captured) in both. WW1 - he was a pilot with the Royal Flying Corp and the 2nd he was an artillery Officer at Tobruk.

    I agree its a banal comparison but war and sport both have their gallant heroes and that why they get compared

    It isnt such a big deal. I have seen UK sports writers invoking the Battle of Britain occasionally. Many a time I have seen articles equating sport to trench warfare etc.

  • Jon on January 1, 2013, 12:12 GMT

    @TommyTuckerSaffa- get a sense of history mate. Of course with your nations limited role in major global events you have really very little perspective. Imagine if a British author spoke in terms about the Boer war in comparing atrocities caused on a cricket pitch. Take off the rose tinted specs for a minute. Comparing war and sport is ridiculous. You are not British so you will not understand.

  • greig on January 1, 2013, 6:50 GMT

    @jb633 get a grip, my grandfather died tragically in WW2 and im not offended at all by Fidrose comparison. If he was alive he wouldve loved watching that innings by faff and the fact that fidrose made reference to it would have warmed his heart that these parts of our history were being remembered.

    Back to the cricket, I am outraged that SA have so few test matches than other top tier teams and this happens every year...why is this????

  • Jon on January 1, 2013, 2:10 GMT

    Fair enough SA have got to number one but comparing a draw in a test match to the battle of Dunkirk is disgusting. I lost 3 family members in the Battle of Dunkirk and lets just say the author has no sense of history or meaning. This is classic exaggerated journalism and I can't get to grips with it. In the big scheme of things sport has to take it's rightful place, it is after all only entertainment. To compare sport with war and death is disrespectful and non sensical. The troops should always be appreciated for any country they fight for. South Africa are deserving number one, but certainly not comparable with war heroes.