No. 1 on the field, not quite off it
As in life, in cricket the best part often comes right at the end. That was South Africa's year in 2013 - an inverted pyramid that began with more fixtures than it ended with, but the most important ones came last.
The Test team spent all 12 months at No. 1 to extend their run to 19 months. They won three of the four series they played, beating New Zealand, Pakistan and India at home. The drawn rubber in the UAE against Pakistan meant South Africa's unbeaten series streak on the road lengthened to eight years. They were last defeated in a series away from home in Sri Lanka in July-August 2006 and are not due to play away until July 2014.
Their successes were underpinned by consistency in selection in the longest format. However, that will change with the retirement of Jacques Kallis. Although not as worshipped or as flamboyant as other greats who retired recently, his absence will do to South Africa what the exits of Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting did to India and Australia.
Plugging the gap will be South Africa's biggest Test challenge in the next year. As will fielding a black African in the Test XI, which has now gone three years without a representative from the country's biggest demographic group; pressure is growing for that to change.
In limited-overs cricket, South Africa can look back on a topsy-turvy 2013 with satisfaction, because flaws cruelly exposed at the Champions Trophy, where they crashed out in the semis, were eventually worked out. Of the 29 ODIs they played, they won 14 and lost 13, with important victories coming as the year ended. After series losses to New Zealand and Pakistan at home, and crushing defeats in Sri Lanka, there were worries over the make-up of the 50-over squad, particularly its batting line-up.
The opening pair has been firmed up, the middle order has settled down and there are options lower down. The bowling unit has also been through changes, with the long-term return of Dale Steyn the most important addition.
Steyn has also committed himself to the T20 squad, which has taken shape ahead of the World Twenty20. Faf du Plessis led them to series wins in Sri Lanka and Dubai and a drawn rubber at home. Combinations have been found and preparations are considered almost complete, as the search for a major trophy continues.
Beyond the boundary, Cricket South Africa faced boardroom issues that centred on the appointment of Haroon Lorgat as CEO. The eventual cost of choosing the man whom Chris Nenzani, CSA president, called the best candidate for the job was a severely shortened series against India. That brought with it financial losses of up to R200 million (US$20 million). The impact that shortfall will have on South African cricket in the long-term may start to show from next year and it is likely that development will be the first area to suffer.
For a country that has established itself among the best in the sport worldwide and continues to produce results that justify that label, maintaining strong structures is important. Whether CSA can do that as its reserves diminish may be the most pressing talking point in the future.
Beating India in Durban was a four-in-one bonus for South Africa. It gave them a series win, sent off Kallis in fine style, ensured they won at a ground that had denied them the previous four times they played on it, and erased doubts about their ability to overcome pressure. The Johannesburg Test was a nerve-shattering thriller that showed off Test cricket at its most tense, but the Kingsmead one was an illustration of South Africa's ability to overcome. They faced hurdles in the form of conditions, weather and opposition, and dealt with their own emotions about Kallis' retirement, but overcame it all to end the year with success.
A shortened India tour was always expected to be an anti-climax and it proved exactly that. The reasons the tour was curtailed are shrouded in mystery. Did South Africa announce the fixtures unilaterally, or was the BCCI just throwing a tantrum? It's clear there is a skewed power structure in world cricket and administrative tussles can directly and dangerously affect the game. That, rather than South Africa's implosion at the Champions Trophy is what should worry fans.
New kid on the block
Three centuries in consecutive matches put Quinton de Kock in elite company. Only four other batsmen have achieved that feat, including AB de Villiers and Herschelle Gibbs. It sealed de Kock's spot in the one-day side ahead of Graeme Smith. After a lean run that was exacerbated by technical problems on slow pitches and against spinners in Sri Lanka, de Kock worked so hard on his game that his franchise coach, Geoffrey Toyana, said he feared de Kock would make him sleep in the nets to give him throwdowns at every available opportunity. Combined with careful mentoring, which included his batting partner telling him to "take it easy" at the end of every over, de Kock blossomed. He paced his innings well, scored freely and hit the ball cleanly. His wicketkeeping skills have also sharpened, and the promise of a successful 2014 beckons.
Paul Harris and Ahmed Amla were among the long-serving players who called it a day in 2013, but the year will be remembered for being Kallis' last as a Test cricketer. He announced his retirement unexpectedly on Christmas Day and left the format six days later on a high. Kallis became the only player with 100-plus Tests to score a century in his final match. He finished with 13,289 runs, 292 wickets and 200 catches - and a reputation as South Africa's best cricketer.
What 2014 holds
Too little cricket. South Africa's schedule for the next 12 months is nothing short of sorry. January is completely bare, which allows the national players to turn out in the domestic T20 competition, but peak summer time should see more than that. Australia's tour of three Tests and three T20s precedes the World Twenty20, and is followed by a lengthy break. The FTP has a tour of Zimbabwe pencilled in for July, but with the financial problems in that country's cricket, it's likely that may be postponed. There's only West Indies to look forward to in the home summer.