If the 2004-05 season comes to be recognised as the time when Graeme Smith's South African team grew up, their tour of the West Indies may be seen as the moment they accepted the responsibilities of cricketing adulthood. Seen through that prism, the defeat in India was a brutal but mercifully short infancy, the visit by England a troubled and troubling adolescence - and Zimbabwe's tour a carefree gap year.
Before reaching the West Indies, South Africa's only real achievement of the southern summer was a successful one-day series against England, and even that was a sop after the Tests were lost 2-1. So the South Africans descended on the Caribbean in search of plunder, knowing that the defending forces were in more disarray than ever.
The long-time sponsors of the international team, Cable & Wireless, weary of association with failure, had made way for Digicel, their rivals in the world of Caribbean telecoms. The trouble was that six leading players - vice-captain Ramnaresh Sarwan, Dwayne Bravo, Fidel Edwards, Chris Gayle, Ravi Rampaul and Dwayne Smith - retained personal contracts with Cable & Wireless, a situation the West Indies board said ruled them out of Test selection. The players' association took issue with this, and civil war broke out. Although West Indies captain Brian Lara was not directly affected, he chose to side with the six, stating that if they were considered ineligible, he was too. Some sort of temporary truce eventually broke out when the players terminated their personal contracts, but not in time to prevent a weakened side under a new captain - Shivnarine Chanderpaul - taking the field in the First Test. And it was far from a lasting peace, as became clear when the West Indies board struggled to raise a team to tour Sri Lanka in July.
But, though South Africa won the Test series easily enough and swept the one-day games, it was far from a straightforward triumph. With Ray Jennings - cricket's answer to General George S. Patton - as coach, how could it be? It was a matter of debate whether Jennings's influence was a key factor in South Africa's Caribbean triumph, or whether his hard-nosed, uncompromising methods simply added to the challenge. Perhaps the truth lay somewhere in between.
Jennings admitted his style of man-management was not for the fainthearted: "When I sense something going wrong," he said, "I stand up and create a conflict. You need to be strong enough to stand up to that." On the tour, Jennings himself always seemed close to one precipice or another, and the question of whether he would keep his job came to dominate the later stages. The answer came days after the team returned home when the mildermannered Mickey Arthur was unveiled as South Africa's coach until after the 2007 World Cup. Gerald Majola, chief executive of Cricket South Africa, insisted: "Ray Jennings was not fired, he was in a short-term position and he was allowed to apply for the position permanently. He just didn't get the job."
But he went out on a high, after a poor start deriving from underpreparation. South Africa had opted to acclimatise to West Indian conditions in a balmy Antiguan beach resort, which bore no resemblance, cricketing or otherwise, to conditions at their next destination, Georgetown. West Indies, despite their inexperienced squad, started well against the illprepared tourists, who were also missing Shaun Pollock, with an ankle injury.
Both the new captain, Chanderpaul, and Wavell Hinds hit double-hundreds before South Africa were forced to follow on. A cadaver of a pitch did nothing to lighten the tone of this wearying match, however, and South Africa ultimately saved it with ease thanks to the bottomless discipline, patience and application of Jacques Kallis, who indulged his love affair with West Indian bowlers. By the end of this series, he had, from his last eight Tests against them, amassed 1,104 runs at a giddy average of 138. Those eight games also brought six centuries.
The West Indians wore their failure to convert their strong position into victory like a deep gash. Had they won, so much of the acrimony stirred up by the sponsorship spat would have been quelled. Hindsight suggests the series was largely won and lost at this point. If we can't win from here, the West Indians seemed to say after a final day in which they took just two of South Africa's remaining eight wickets, we can't win from anywhere. So it proved.
Strange forces were at play in the West Indies team. The batting, without Lara, the one acknowledged genius, had clicked at Georgetown. But in Trinidad and then Barbados, Lara returned to play innings perhaps as sublime as any that have sung from his bat - and his colleagues fell in a heap. South Africa reeled off spectacular wins in both on the back of superlative bowling first by Makhaya Ntini and then Andre Nel, and claimed the series. They were even able to doze through the dead-rubber run-feast in St John's that had as its centrepiece Gayle's monumental triple-century.
Doze, that is, until a storm broke over allegations that Smith had racially abused Bravo. Match referee Jeff Crowe ruled there was no evidence to support the charge, but Hinds thought otherwise. In the second innings, Hinds, bowling his medium-pace, appeared to throw the ball at Smith deliberately and spit on the pitch in front of him. It cost Hinds his entire match fee. Such nastiness was a bolt from the blue in a series otherwise conducted cordially enough for Lara to share a drink with the South Africans on the night they won in Barbados.
It also made little sense. Why would Smith, by all indications an intelligent, polite young man, throw such ugly language about in any situation, much less a game whose intensity never rose above a day on the beach? Similarly, why would Bravo, no less an intelligent, polite young man, make such ugly allegations? Smith demanded an apology, Bravo refused, and all everyone could do was hope normal service would resume shortly.
It didn't. Relations were strained throughout the one-day series and by the last match, in Trinidad, the South Africans were more than ready to go home, and their hosts eager to bid them farewell. Never before had the West Indies been whitewashed in a home one-day series. The telling blow came in Barbados, where the West Indians, already 2-0 down, had to win to keep the contest alive. They were almost there - four needed from six balls with three wickets standing - when a hat-trick from Charl Langeveldt blew them out of the water.
Impartial lovers of cricket were relieved to see South Africa emerge - permanently, they will hope - from beneath the dark clouds of the Cronje crisis, failed World Cup campaigns and repeated hidings by Australia. But they would have felt no joy at seeing West Indies reel from one disaster to the next.
Match reports for
Jamaica v South Africans at Spanish Town, May 5, 2005