It started off so bad when South Africa failed for the third time in a row to win a home series against England. Then it got a little worse. They were booted out of the World T20 in the first round and did not make the final of a triangular series in the Caribbean against West Indies and Australia. By mid-year, South Africa were in crisis, coach Russell Domingo's job was under threat, and a national and domestic review was planned.
But it ended up so good. Even though the initial independent investigation into the performance of the country's top cricket teams was canned and the Test and ODI captain AB de Villiers spent several months injured, South Africa staged a spectacular turnaround and beat Australia in ODIs at home and Tests away to end 2016 with hope.
In a year of two halves, the Test team lost the No. 1 ranking for the first time in three years and tumbled as far as No. 7 before crawling back up. They will finish at No. 4 and have their sights set on entering the top three over the course of their current series against Sri Lanka at home, and the upcoming one against New Zealand away. Results aside, they will be assured of a brighter 2017 because they have found the certainty they lacked last year.
In 12 months, South Africa have had three Test captains but have finally settled on the correct choice, Faf du Plessis. The team has responded to him in ways it does not to either de Villiers, or Hashim Amla. Du Plessis challenges and inspires, which is what this South African team needs.
They are slowly shifting from an era of superstars to being able to rely on overall team performances, and their victories over Australia were evidence of that. In the ODIs, there were centuries from four different players; in the Tests, from five. The reserve bowlers, who appeared lost last season, have found their mojo. It has helped that Vernon Philander has returned and Kagiso Rabada has matured, but Kyle Abbott has become undroppable and the spin department is well stocked.
That has helped mask issues like Hashim Amla's struggles - eight innings without a Test hundred - but he still ended the year as South Africa's highest run scorer in Tests. Quinton de Kock, who also led the ODI run-charts for South Africa, and Stephen Cook were second and third to firmly establish the new generation. Rabada was their top Test bowler, with Imran Tahir still dominating in limited-overs' matches.
Still, not everything in the set-up is perfect and South African cricket could find itself facing a drain. Three recently capped Test players - Hardus Viljoen, Simon Harmer and Stiaan van Zyl - signed Kolpak deals and there is talk of more to follow as Brexit looms. The declining rand is not the only drawcard for these players; a lack of opportunity in South Africa's six-team system, which is also governed by transformation targets, keeps some of them out. While administrators are concerned about the departures, they continue to proclaim optimism over the talent South Africa is producing.
Equally, there is cheer over CSA's decision to make public their transformation goals, especially at national level. In September they announced the team would be required to play a minimum average of six players of colour, of which at least two need to be black African. To date, they have kept up with that requirement, and should it continue, the ban on bidding for or hosting major international events, which was placed on them by the sports ministry in April, could be lifted as early as next year. That would leave open the possibility of hosting a World T20 in 2018, should it take place.
Since West Indies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, no team has beaten Australia in three successive Test series down under, and South Africa were not expected to. Especially not after de Villiers was ruled out pre-series with an elbow injury and Dale Steyn was lost on the second day with a broken shoulder. Contributions throughout the batting line-up, the return of Philander and the way Abbott and Rabada stepped up all enabled South Africa to emerge victorious. They had whitewashed Australia 5-0 in a home ODI series before the Tests to claim back-to-back wins over their greatest rivals.
At the start of the year, South Africa were bowled out for 83 at the Wanderers to lose the series against England and their No. 1 Test ranking. The collapse was their worst at home since readmission and their second-worst anywhere in the same period.
New kid on the block
It may be difficult to imagine but not so long ago South Africa feared their allrounders cupboard was bare. They have now discovered it fully stocked. The latest among them is Andile Phehlukwayo, a 20-year-old who bowls a heavy ball, can bat time, and who finished as the leading wicket-taker in the 5-0 ODI whitewash over Australia. He was injured during the domestic T20 campaign but could be part of South Africa's major-tournament plans.
Last year ended with uncertainty over Steyn nursing a shoulder injury and 2016 has finished in exactly the same way. He is set to sit out the first half of 2017 recovering from surgery, and there are murmurs about whether he will return at all. With only five wickets to get to overtake Shaun Pollock as South Africa's leading wicket-taker in Test cricket, Steyn can't be ruled out just yet, but he is not the only fast bowler on the injured list. Morne Morkel did not play internationals in the second half of the year and is still battling a back niggle. Morkel was also left out of the World T20 squad and only used sparingly in the triangular series in the Caribbean. He has fallen off the radar in shorter formats and South Africa may have to get used to an attack without him.
What 2017 holds
A busy first three months will see South Africa complete the hosting of their only home tour this summer, against Sri Lanka, and then visit New Zealand for a full tour. The winter break is much shorter than usual and ends in late May, when South Africa embark on a three-month tour of the UK. They kick off with ODIs and the Champions Trophy, play three T20Is and then four Tests, in what could be a race to reclaim the mace. The 2017-18 summer is being spoken of as the busiest to date, with 13 home Tests in the offing, but the details have yet to be ironed out. An increasingly packed calendar means player workloads will need to be carefully managed, especially as this is also the year South Africa plan on unveiling their new T20 competition. An eight-team franchise tournament is on the cards for late 2017 as South Africa aim to replicate the premier leagues around the world.