December 31, 2012

Up where they belong

In 2012, South Africa reaped the fruits of labours dating back to over half a decade

January 1, 2012. South Africa are locked 1-1 in a series against Sri Lanka, having just lost the Boxing Day Test.

December 3, 2012. South Africa's Test programme for the year is complete: Played ten. Lost 0.

The numbers may seem to say it all - except that nine of those ten Tests were contested away from home. It marks South Africa's best period in the longest format, and they have the Test mace to show for it.

As deserved title-holders, South Africa's slow ascendance is proof that there are virtues in patience and planning. Putting together the unit that triumphed has taken more than half a decade, dating back to Sri Lanka 2006. That was the last time South Africa lost a series away from home.

The team that beat England and Australia on the road in 2008 contained some of South Africa's finest, and many survivors from those missions are still part of the Test team. Yet even they lacked what South Africa needed to go from good to great. Gary Kirsten has been credited with introducing the third dimension.

His work-life approach involves non-cricket activities and plenty of time off, and it has taken hold in the Test team. It has yet to extend to the limited-overs sides, which had a forgettable year, with series against Sri Lanka and England narrowly won and drawn*, respectively. It was also disappointing in that they crashed out of the World Twenty20 before the semi-finals.

The main focus was on Test cricket and it showed. After beating Sri Lanka in the New Year Test to avoid a series defeat at home, South Africa went to New Zealand needing to win 3-0 to go top. But for wet weather, they would probably have.

England was always going to be their big chance. The tour was hyped as the series of the year, and it started dramatically with Mark Boucher's horrific, career-ending eye injury. South Africa rallied immediately to win the first Test, in which Hashim Amla became the country's first triple-centurion and Graeme Smith scored a hundred in his 100th match.

The draw at Headingley meant Lord's provided the perfect backdrop for a series win. Amla, JP Duminy and Vernon Philander delivered it. Most importantly South Africa proved they could perform under pressure.

Getting to No. 1 was euphoric but South Africa sobered up with the knowledge that they would have to defend their title in Australia. It was the toughest assignment they could have been set, and until the last day of the Adelaide Test it seemed it would overwhelm them. Then Faf du Plessis and an injured Jacques Kallis put up a rearguard to rival the Battle of Dunkirk. South Africa went to Perth with a massive advantage, having mentally ravaged and physically worn Australian's bowlers down to the point where they needed a completely new attack.

Victory came on the fourth day, and with it the feeling that South Africa are a No. 1 side who have the potential to be able to stay there for longer than their most recent predecessors. Smith called the successive series wins in England and Australia "the proudest achievements of my career".

The start of a golden age, perhaps, but not everything that happened in the year gave CSA that kind of honour. The messy bonus scandal ended when Gerald Majola was dismissed in October, almost three years after the suspension of financial wrongdoing was raised. But CSA's administrative troubles are not over. The Nicholson commission (which recommended Majola be suspended and disciplined) also instructed that a new board be put in place, with more independent directors. The process has been complicated by unhappiness from the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, the governing body of sport in the country, over the selection of board members. As a result, CSA's AGM was postponed three times and will now take place before the end of the tax year, in February.

Something the suits got right was restoring corporate confidence in the game. After a 2011-12 season that began with no sponsors, CSA now have big-business backing across all formats. They are missing the support of one major establishment, though. The national broadcaster, SABC, decided not to air live Test cricket in the 2012-13 summer, for the first time since readmission, because of the cost of rights fees. Instead, it will only broadcast the limited-overs matches and show highlights packages of the Tests. Almost seven times as many people tune in to Test cricket on the free-to-air broadcaster as on the subscription channel. Now that the country has a Test team worth watching, that majority will not be able to see them in action.

The masses were also denied in a more telling sphere. No black African (the race group that makes up over 80% of the South African population and accounts for more than 40% of active cricketers at all levels, including club and school) took the field in Test cricket in 2012, an issue that was exacerbated by the Thami Tsolekile debacle. The wicketkeeper was contracted in February and told he would play against New Zealand at the end of the year, but the national selectors u-turned on that when AB de Villiers changed his mind about wicketkeeping permanently.

Talk is rife about implementing legislation to change the lack of representation. CSA's acting chief executive, Jacques Faul, indicated the matter would come up for discussion at the board meeting in January. It is a worrying issue because what it really says is that for all South African cricket's progress in the last 12 months, the biggest step it may take is backwards.

High point
South Africa climbed the Test rankings with the determination of a hiker on foot advancing up Table Mountain, and the stubbornness of the same man who, when exhausted, refuses to take the cable car. The resilience paid off. Six years of conquering territory from Australia to the Caribbean finally yielded something tangible. For a side that has constantly been saddled with labels that express underachievement, the view from the top was even more spectacular than they imagined.

Low point
Another year, another ICC event, another South African effort that failed to live up to expectation. The World Twenty20 was Kirsten's first major tournament in charge of the team, but not even he could turn their fortunes around. The strategy of a floating middle order looked more like an attempt to herd cats, and South Africa lost all of their Super Eights matches to return home empty-handed, again. In the aftermath, the T20 squad was completely revamped to add a significant number of young players, and national assistant coach Russell Domingo was put in charge of it.

New kid on the block
Seven years ago, du Plessis was almost lost to South African cricket. He pondered a county offer with a clause that would require him to qualify for England. Something in his conscience held him back. Thank goodness, South Africans will say now. His fighting knocks in Adelaide, which included a century in his first Test, showed his temperament, class and readiness to step up after seasons of trying to break out of being boxed in as a limited-overs player. Less than two weeks after that tour, du Plessis was named stand-in captain of the T20 squad to play New Zealand.

Fading star
To suggest Jacques Kallis is losing his shine would be to say the crown jewels are doing so. Even if the odd blemish appears, a little bit of polish can make them look as though they had never been tarnished at all. Lotions, potions, physiotherapy and rest have all done a mending job for Kallis over the past year, and his performances have not dimmed at all, although he has bowled significantly less than before.

He scored centuries in all of South Africa's series. He also got injured in each. In New Zealand, Kallis suffered a stiff neck and had to miss the third Test; in England he could not bowl during one of the matches because he was rendered immobile by back spasms; and in Australia he suffered a first hamstring injury. That he still has it was best illustrated by his half-century in Adelaide - runs he scored while in pain. Whether his body will continue to let him have it is what will determine the length of the rest of his career.

What 2013 holds
In two words: less travel. After the ongoing New Zealand series, South Africa host Pakistan for three Tests - which they will see as a way to extend their lead on the Test table - five ODIs and two T20s before enjoying an autumn break. The Champions Trophy will present another shot at ICC silverware. It will be followed by a visit to Sri Lanka that has been shortened to exclude any Tests. As a result, South Africa will not play any Test cricket between April and October, but their programme resumes with a trip to the UAE to clash with Pakistan again. The year may feel like it is only starting as it ends when India travel to South Africa in December for another marquee contest.

December 31, 08:12:03 GMT: South Africa did not lose their one-day series in England, they drew it. The error has been amended

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent