SA look for new fairytale as dream run ends

AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla walk off for tea Getty Images

The fine print will tell you that the hosts were so wary of the best travelers in world cricket, they demanded surfaces even their own batsmen looked silly on. The toss played more of a role than is regarded as acceptable, and there was some reputation-saving resilience which came at just the right time. The footnotes will add that India's victory is not being received as the wholesome break from hegemony their 2001 triumph over Australia was, but as a hollow humbling of the current No.1s, who have proved themselves good enough to play on most pitches in the world.

What went wrong for South Africa was a combination of being confounded by the surfaces while trying to summon the skill-set needed to succeed on them, and being forced to take stock of their own circumstances since last losing a Test series away from home, in Sri Lanka in 2006, all at the same time.

On that tour, South Africa were without Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, who had ankle and elbow injuries respectively. They were also without their premier paceman Shaun Pollock, who was on paternity leave, for the first match. Sounds familiar?

On this tour, South Africa have been forced to confront the effects of being without Smith and Kallis, who have now retired, more vividly. Their premier paceman Dale Steyn, has also been sidelined with a groin injury. Then, as it is now, the cost of losing two experienced batsmen and the leader of the attack proved too much for the rest to compensate for.

From Karachi to Kingston, South Africa's success over the last nine years has been built on the back of big performances from their big-name batsmen, a searing show from a seamer, and a supporting role from a surprise source, sometimes even a spinner.

No matter the conditions or the class of the opposition, that formula always worked. That may be true for most teams, but most teams have not got it right as often as South Africa did, or in as many places as South Africa did.

The seed behind their streak was planted at the 2007 World Cup. In keeping with their script, South Africa bombed out despite being favourites, but it was the team culture that came under the microscope. They were accused of reveling in mediocrity, content with the Caribbean nightlife and unconcerned about their own levels of competitiveness. Smith cited the aftermath of that tournament has being the catalyst for a change in attitude.

The effects of a more considered approach to cricket followed soon after. Later that year, South Africa traveled to Pakistan for a two-Test series, and won. The most remarkable aspect of that victory - apart from Kallis' hundreds, the way Steyn took the lead in Karachi, and Kallis and Smith batting Pakistan out of contention in Lahore - was where it was achieved.

Pakistan is often spoken about by the non-Asian teams as one of the most difficult places to tour because of the cultural differences. That a South African side who indulged in the island life of the World Cup months before, remodeled themselves to adapt to a more conservative way of life spoke to their commitment to playing proper cricket.

They went on to win in Bangladesh and draw in India in 2008, series which chipped away at the myth that their batsmen could not play spin.Then, their breakthrough performances followed. Victories over England and Australia later that year helped South Africa crack the glass ceiling that hung over them since readmission. Those series wins established them as a team who could travel well, and as an outfit capable of building an era of domination. The self-belief soared, and when they returned to India in 2010 to play the then No.1 side, another drawn series was proof of how self-assured South Africa had become.

Chasing the top ranking did not feature heavily on South Africa's agenda then; it seemed a byproduct of consistent success. But in 2012, they were told to go and get it. South Africa went to England in 2012 confident of their chances because they were so clear about their combinations. By then, South Africa's top six was solid and their three-pronged pace attack was varied and vicious. Most of all, they were a happy family and it showed.

Their victory was a natural progression of what they had been building towards and even in celebration, they spoke about how they could ensure they stayed at the summit. The next three years were dedicated to doing that. A win in Australia and a draw in UAE allowed South Africa to grow a gap between themselves and the rest - a gulf big enough to survive the impending transition.

Kallis was always seen as the key figure, whose eventual retirement would throw South Africa off balance. When he retired, South Africa were shaken but when Smith went soon after him, they were stirred too. Between them, Kallis and Smith had scored 11 away centuries each between 2007 and their last matches in late 2013 and early 2014 respectively. That speaks of the stability they provided, but not of where rest of the strength came from.

In the same period, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers racked up 12 and seven hundreds on the road respectively and Steyn took 167 wickets including nine five-fors. South Africa's success came because they had both a senior and junior wave of excellence, and someone to cause a crash on the other side. That richness of resources does not rain down often.

South Africa still have Amla and de Villiers. Their second wave of Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy and Dean Elgar are also promising, but there are concerns over the rest. They still have Steyn, although the wear and tear is taking its toll and his likeliest successor, Kagiso Rabada needs time. Whether Rabada will have support like Steyn did is also uncertain. The depth is being tested, and waters seem muddy, but the good news is: nothing lasts forever.

This teething phase, too, will end. After next week, South Africa will not play away Tests until next November. They have a whole year on helpful wickets at home and enough cricket to ensure a smooth transition. There are six home Tests - four against England over December and January and then two against New Zealand in August - before they tour Australia in late 2016. They won't go there with a decade-long unbeaten away run to protect as they may have hoped, but they may go there looking for a fresh start.