<
>

South Africa No. 1 in name only after year of decline

South Africa will end 2015 in the same place they began it, at the top of the Test rankings, but not in control of them. With just one win from eight Tests this year, no 100-run partnerships for the first time since 1963 and on their joint-longest winless streak (7) since readmission, they are teetering on the edge. This is how the story of that turnaround.

v West Indies, Cape Town, January 2-6,
Scorecard
South Africa won by 8 wickets

South Africa's sole success came at the start of the year against an ailing West Indies team who posted a par first innings score at Newlands despite their problems. South Africa responded with a century from AB de Villiers and half-centuries from Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis - their only scores over 50 in Tests this year - and their only total over 300 in 2015. Dale Steyn and Simon Harmer took seven in the match respectively to seal a series win.

The first gusts of change began to blow when Alviro Petersen announced his retirement post-match. He had not scored a half-century in 11 innings and had gone 27 without a hundred so it seemed a sensible decision to avoid the drop but, at 34, he was one of South Africa's most experienced players.

****

v Bangladesh, Chittagong, July 21-27
Scorecard
Match drawn

The dust from the fifty-over World Cup, which swirled with selection controversies over transformation, had three months to settle before South Africa took the field again. They did so without de Villiers for the first time since his Test debut 11 years ago (he was on paternity leave) and with a new opening pair. Stiaan van Zyl, the regular No. 3 was promoted and in his first outing, shared in two half-century stands with Dean Elgar. But the only batsman to hit an individual fifty was de Villiers' replacement, Temba Bavuma. Ducks for Quinton de Kock and JP Duminy saw South Africa skittled for less than 250. A malaise was set in motion.

The attack, which shared success between Steyn, Harmer and Vernon Philander, was made to toil and Bangladesh took a 78-run first innings lead before van Zyl and Elgar stirred a little. The rain did the rest.

****

v Bangladesh, Dhaka, July 30-August 3
Scorecard
Match Drawn

The first major change was made when de Kock was dropped for poor batting form which had stretched back to the limited-overs' series and the wicket-keeping duties handed to Dane Vilas. At 31, Vilas was surprised to receive a call-up and even more surprised when he went from being a back-up in de Villiers' absence to a serious contender for a long-term role. He did not really get the chance to show what he could do. Four days were washed out after Steyn and Duminy shared six wickets between them.

****

v India, Mohali, November 5-7
Scorecard
India won by 108 runs

With de Villiers back and Vilas retained, South Africa were gunning for a first series win in India in 15 years and expected it to be tough. They prepared for turn from day one and they were right. But it was their own spinner who owned the early honours. Elgar took 4 for 22 so that even without Morne Morkel, who had a quad injury, South Africa bowled India out for 201. Kagiso Rabada debuted in the match while JP Duminy sat out with a hand injury.

South Africa then responded woefully, losing five wickets to R Ashwin and all 10 to spin in the first innings but then came back to bowl India out for 200 despite losing Steyn to a groin injury mid-match. Imran Tahir, on comeback, and Harmer took eight wickets. A target of 218 seemed gettable but India's spinners did not think so. Nine wickets were shared between them, many of them deliveries that did not turn, and the match was over inside three days.

v India, Bangalore, November 14-18.
Scorecard
Match drawn

In the days between matches, South Africa trained on scuffed-up surfaces where the ball turned square. Kyle Abbott was flown in as cover for Steyn, who was desperately trying to recover for de Villiers' 100th Test. He did not. Then another blow came when Philander tore ankle ligaments in warm-ups the day before the game and was ruled out for eight weeks. Morkel and Duminy had both healed but South Africa's mental scars had not.

On the best batting deck they would see for seven weeks, they allowed Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja free reign. Du Plessis was out for a second duck in three innings. He had scored 1 in between. South Africa were 78 for 4 before de Villiers saved their blushes with an aggressive 85 at his second home ground. Still, they barely eked out 200 and were in danger of conceding a massive deficit. India were 80 without loss at the end of the first day and then it rained... and rained... and rained.

****

v India, Nagpur, 25-27 November
Scorecard
India won by 124 runs

Ten days of preparation should have given South Africa enough time to work on any technical issues with the bat and for Steyn to recover but neither happened. Steyn had apparently pushed himself so hard to play in Bangalore it would cost him the rest of the series and the batsmen proved to be in even more of a spin.

The attack was up for it as Morkel and Harmer combined to shoot India out for 215 but the line-up could see generous turn first-up and it spooked them. In their worst display against India, South Africa were shot out for 79. Only three batsmen got into double figures. Du Plessis and Duminy were among them but Amla managed just 1. All the wickets fell to spin. The South Africa who were terrified of the subcontinent in the mid-90s seemed to be back to that thought process, only worse.

On a pitch the ICC eventually rated as poor, India also struggled, Tahir secured a second five-for and Morkel delivered a searing spell of reverse-swing but South Africa needed 310 to win and with more than three days left in the match, many more minutes to survive. They made some valiant attempts. Amla batted for three hours 40 minutes and faced 167 balls for 39, du Plessis batted for three hours five minutes and faced 153 balls for the same score but their spirit was broken. The series was lost and their nine-year unbeaten run on the road ended.

****

v India, Delhi 3-7 December
Scorecard
India won by 337 tuns

With only pride to play for, South Africa promised they would do better. They left out van Zyl, who was clueless against spin, Rabada, who had played every game on tour and Harmer, inexplicably, and let Bavuma, not seen since Bangladesh, open the batting and gave Abbott and Dane Piedt a run. Both bowlers impressed and they took nine wickets between them - Abbott the first five-for by an overseas seamer in Delhi since the year he was born (1987) - but Ajinkya Rahane showed run-scoring was more possible here than anywhere else.

South Africa did not think so: they could not deal with either pace or turn and fell for 121. There was another duck for du Plessis, another single score for Amla, another embarrassment. India declared after Rahane's second century and South Africa had no choice but to attempt another blockathon.

Bavuma batted two-and-a-half hours and faced 117 balls for an assured 34, Amla and de Villiers lasted five hours or so, du Plessis another two. Duminy did the duck walk. Vilas, who had gone unnoticed in runs terms and battled unfamiliar bounce behind the stumps, looked inept. Jadeja and Ashwin took turns taking five-for. South Africa could only think of home.

****

v England, Durban, 26-30 December
Scorecard
England won by 241 runs

In the comfort of their own surroundings, South Africa seemed a little more settled. Steyn was back, van Zyl was back, Bavuma was moved down, Piedt and Abbott were retained but Tahir and Vilas were not. De Villiers would keep wicket. It was a different looking team but it turned out that nothing had changed.

The bowlers did their bit, the batsmen did not. Steyn got injured, Amla had questionable shot selection, du Plessis was out in single figures twice, Duminy once. Elgar scored the first century since that first match against West Indies but, flashes from de Villiers apart, there was little else. When the collapse came, it came quickly and calamitously. South Africa highest total was 214, as it had been in India.

Behind the scenes, there was discontent. There were suggestions de Villiers wanted to retire because of a heavy workload and former captain Graeme Smith told the BBC's Test Match Special he sensed "a few rumblings" in the dressing room. Russell Domingo, the coach, rubbished that. He claimed he had a "happy camp," who were "backing each other". But the selectors were not backing anyone properly.

****

For the start of 2016, de Kock will be back to take the gloves from de Villiers. Steyn could still be injured so Rabada will play to keep the transformation balance in check while Bavuma, who hasn't had the chance to do much wrong or right, may be benched. Chris Morris and Hardus Viljoen are also in the squad, with doubts over Kyle Abbott's fitness. Van Zyl, du Plessis and Duminy will probably - and wrongly - survive. Stephen Cook, the only actual opening batsmen in the runs, has not got a look in.

Whatever the year brings, South Africa will not want to end 2016 the way they will start it.