South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Durban, 5th day December 30, 2009

Vertigo kicks in as South Africa stumble from summit

Reaching the summit is one challenge, staying there is something entirely different

Reaching the summit is one challenge, staying there is something entirely different. When South Africa took Australia's crown as the No. 1 Test team in the world, they seemed to have the makings of a side to hold that spot. A strong-willed captain, a mighty batting order, a great allrounder and a fearsome strike bowler.

They couldn't do much to prevent the mace being handed over to India at the start of this month as they hadn't played Test cricket for eight months, but after an innings-and-98-run thrashing at Durban, they look anything but world-leaders. It's the nature of the defeat that is causing the greatest alarm. South Africa have always been beatable, but they rarely get hammered.

Overcoming Australia on their home soil proved such a pinnacle for Graeme Smith's team. It was the fruition of two years' building and followed a victory in Pakistan, a draw away to India then an historic series win in England. Each of those achievements was memorable in its own right, but when Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla knocked off the runs at the MCG that was the moment a generation (and more) had waited for. Since then, alas, there has been a steady slide.

Defeat in a dead rubber at Sydney could be excused - particularly as it came with just 10 balls of the match remaining - but the loss of the return series in South Africa was a real shock to the system. Questions were asked about how the team had prepared, while familiar differences of opinion emerged between the captain and the selectors.

The eight-month hiatus from Tests allowed that particular dust-cloud to settle, but South Africa's performances in limited-overs cricket also suffered. After a crushing defeat in the semi-finals of the World Twenty20, they flopped at home in the Champions Trophy, with a first-round exit, and went on to lose the one-day series against England. Now this innings defeat at Durban has ensured that a year that began with so much promise has turned into one to forget.

"We have to honest with ourselves and look in the mirror. We represent a lot of people's hopes in South Africa and just weren't good enough," Smith said of his team's capitulation. "We haven't played the same amount of Tests as we did in 2008, but 2009 really hasn't lived up to the hype we managed to build last year, and that's disappointing.

"As a team we reached a point and haven't been able to go to the next level. That's something we need to address as a team and maybe as a leadership group. From a coaching perspective we need to look at why we haven't been able to take the next step, and that's something hopefully we can reassess in 2010 and make it a better year."

The similarities between South Africa's post-Australia blues and England's post-2005 Ashes hangover are stark. Under Michael Vaughan, England reached their zenith during that memorable summer and seemingly had a team to dominate for years to come. But it wasn't to be. They just couldn't reach those levels of intensity again for consistent periods. The could be becoming true for South Africa.

Injuries, too, played a part, perhaps more so in England's case but the recent problems for Dale Steyn and Jacques Kallis haven't helped the hosts. Then there's the loss of form and confidence. Steve Harmison was never the same after 2005, while Makhaya Ntini is now a shadow of his former self.

And what of the coaches? Duncan Fletcher backed his players to the hilt until it got too much during the 2006-07 Ashes drubbing, when the performances were indefensible and relationships reached breaking point, not least between Fletcher and his captain, Andrew Flintoff. Things are not as dire for Mickey Arthur, but the warning signs are there. He has the utmost faith in his players and his game plans - however, sometimes the call to change becomes too loud to resist.

Smith, though, is cautious of knee-jerk reactions. "We've had one collapse and as disappointing as that is, I don't think it's a call to make massive changes," he said. "It's disappointing when it does happen, it never looks good, but generally the top six have been solid even in this series. Maybe we got a little tentative and didn't commit to our shots as well as have.

"The guys have got good records. It's always important to have these wake-up calls, but disappointing when it does happen. In this series the guys have batted well and handled conditions well, even in the first innings here, 340 was a good effort but we have to go away and improve."

However, his support of Ntini sounded less fulsome than in the days leading up to this Test when he had made it clear there was never a chance of him being omitted despite Friedel de Wet's impressive debut at Centurion. Former players have been critical of the decision, and public opinion may even be swaying against Ntini.

"Makhaya would be the first one to put his hand up and say he's disappointed with the way he has bowled," Smith said. "He comes with a lot of experience and has performed well over a period of time. We have given him all the support we can from behind the scenes and he is an important cog in the line-up. We need to look at all those aspects going into Cape Town and see what we can do.

"We've got a crucial Test starting out the year and we need to make those decisions and move forward pretty quickly. We can turn it all around in a few days time."

Newlands is a stronghold for South Africa and their three previous Tests against England since admission have been crushing victories, including two by an innings. The difference, though, is that on each of those occasions they have entered the New Year Test on the back of a draw, not a confidence-sapping defeat. The force is against them and they will have to dig deep. Smith will be glad there's only one day of 2009 remaining.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • lionking on January 2, 2010, 2:06 GMT

    England is like a team they can do anything on that given day. they can beat aus or india. for them losing is not a matter they will just want to give try the best. the opponents always underestimate england specially smith giving nonsense comments. SA batting i will choose Gibbs instead of Prince. he must be selected for atleast tests. Player like prince he wont score runs at good strike rate. In this modern test cricket definetly need to score at better strike rate atleast 50-70. if u see indian, SL, Aus they all have good attacking openers. SA batting i feel main backbones is AB and Duminy. if they gone nobody going to fight. specially player like boucher i have seen many years he's simply doing nothing i dont know whether SA dont have other keepers. England batting is definetely getting improved with Strauss in good form.Cook and bell if they score its bonus. Eng also depend mainly on Trott, KP, collingwood. Broad, Swann, Anderson they will score atleast 100 runs altogether.Cheers

  • giovaughn on January 2, 2010, 0:26 GMT

    my my my o how the mighty are panicking its going to be tough for SA to bounce back it really would not surprise me if they lost like Australia

    seriously if this was the #1 team then WEst Indies stand a good chance of moving up the rankings with fresh blood like Bharath & Roach coming through I know we have a better team than New Zealand & Pakistan arnt all that good either.

  • Anthony on January 1, 2010, 18:21 GMT

    You have to remember South Africa only got to number one by default. They had their chance to earn the right themselves but couldn't beat an Australian team at home that they had only beaten a few months earlier when the mace wasn't directly up for grabs. The mace is now with a deserving team, who could well have wilted against the initial Sri Lankan onslaught but stood tall to claim their rightful place in history. Not for them that waiting for others to fall first.

  • Cameron on January 1, 2010, 4:15 GMT

    Only the political nature of South African cricket selections can keep Ntini in that side. I've considered him to be well past his best for a long while actually, not just this series. He's been a very good bowler, but he's lost that penetration, reminds me of when Jason Gillespie lost his penetration in about 2004ish, they don't seem to be able to get it back once its gone. I think he's done, but I actually don't know that they'll drop him.

  • Janette on December 31, 2009, 18:36 GMT

    OK We lost it. SA are sacrificing wins for the sake of loyalty. At Centurion we gave the last over to Ntini instead of de Wet - why - only de Wet looked like he could take the last wicket and win the test. Then Ntini gets the nod for the 2nd test instead of de Wet. The old boy's club working again. As for opening with Prince - give the job to AB - he has done it in thr past - and Prince down the order. In fact, How do I go about applying for the job of convener of selectors? Seems unconstitutional that only ex (male) cricketers seem to be eligible! And Morkel would definitely be my pick. My team Biff, AB, Kallis, Amla, JP, Prince, Morkel, Steyn, vd Merwe, de Wet, and goodness me - we seem to have space for Bouch! Let's get rid if the old boy's club and start winning tests again. Get JP Bowling more - we need an all-rounder - 2 with Kallis - a much more balanced side. Procter - be a MAN and step in like you did with Gibbs. Sometimes you have to.

  • Hitesh on December 31, 2009, 18:03 GMT

    I still think Makhaya Ntini should be given another chance at Newlands. He has been one of South Africa's most consistent bowlers over the years, and at 32 he still has quite a bit to offer for the years to come. Sure he is going through a bit of a slump, but which bowler doesn't. Household names such as Muralitharan, Flintoff, Walsh all went through these sort of slumps at some point. Yes, Ntini did not take a wicket at Durban but it's one match and still to early to judge anything. Confidence can do magic and if Makhaya is given an assurance he is playing the rest of the series he will deliver. Cape Town is a happy hunting ground for Ntini, so who knows? It's amazing, no matter how much success one can achieve, a couple of below par performances really get calls for your axing.

  • SUBRAMANIAN on December 31, 2009, 17:55 GMT

    Its just a matter off single test or single innings. SA should come good soon. Their problem is not in their line up or something but rather rustiness. Also a here we must not forget the English side. Strauss is terrific. Cook is impoving. Trott, KP & Colly are playing well. Prior is in good form. Their pace attack is menacing. So is Swann. Bell has found good form. So kudos to them. They are going to give a run for money to each of top contender.

  • Jack on December 31, 2009, 16:52 GMT

    DAR 268 - Oh really? Over the last 15 years, how many teams have come to Australia and pulled off the not-so-amazing feat of a test series win? And in that same period, how many teams have beaten Australia by scoring over 400 in the final innings - save for the West Indies?

  • Terry on December 31, 2009, 15:56 GMT

    This is only one test, please remember that. What it does show is what England can do especially when the not so fancied players such as Bell and Cook do their job. There is very little between the top 5 teams in the world and a good session and a little bit of luck can turn a match on its head.

  • S on December 31, 2009, 15:52 GMT

    tendulkar134, Yes I have done my research. As you said Mark Boucher "scoring nearly 1000 runs in the last two years"...hmmm.. Are we talking Test Cricket here? haha. "Boucher is the best wicketkeeper in the world, renowed nearly by everyone". Who is EVERYONE? Your WK Dhoni has much much better stats then Boucheer, hey even Prior has beaten Boucher of lately. "Its south africas top order that is the real problem". Mind you, not too long ago, SF middle order was questioned..ha

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