A satisfying end to a dramatic summer

From a new coach to a series win against Australia, South Africa endured a lot, but among their takeaways are consistency and success

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Hugs all around after South Africa's win, South Africa v Australia, 4th Test, Johannesburg, April 3, 2018


Dramatic, was Ottis Gibson's one-word description of his first season in charge of South Africa. And it's an apt word.
In the six months that have made up the longest home summer in South African history, there has been a new coach, the departure of the CSA CEO, the hype and cancellation of a franchise-owned T20 tournament resulting in a loss of USD 14 million and 10 Test matches including the first day-night Test scheduled for four days, which lasted for a day-and-a-half, AB de Villiers' comeback after almost two years away from Tests, Dale Steyn too returned after 13 months and his subsequent injury, Morne Morkel's 300th Test wicket and his retirement, 13 new caps across all formats, among them Aiden Markram, who has already scored 1,000 Test runs and has captained in five ODIs, an instruction to prepare revenge pitches for a series against India, which backfired, a rating of poor for the Wanderers pitch, a Test series win over India, an ODI and T20 series defeat to them, two injuries to the all-format captain Faf du Plessis, a four-Test series riddled with sideshows against Australia in which seven players were disciplined including them Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada (twice), Vernon Philander's 200th Test wicket, Rabada's rise to No.1 on the bowling rankings and South Africa's retention of the No. 2 spot.
Yes, dramatic. And once everyone has taken a deep breath, it will be a good time to take stock.
South Africa did not achieve their goal of becoming the No. 1 ranked Test side, but they came within four points of it - close enough to declare the season a success. Importantly, they found what du Plessis called "big depth" to their resources, to ease fears of a complete talent drain caused by the recent and ongoing Kolpakalypse.
As a squad, South Africa have settled. Although the 5-1 defeat to India in ODIs suggests they are far from ready to win a World Cup - Gibson's major mandate - the strides he has made in the longest format indicate he could engineer something special.
Gibson is essentially a light-hearted coach. While he places great value on hard work, he tries to keep the change-room fun. He told tales of music playing, rum and coke on the table and called it "a chilled out place." And the effect of creating that environment is showing.
South Africa played their Test cricket this summer with passion and aggression but maintained a detached coolness at the same time. Even when de Kock and Rabada briefly had their moments - de Kock in responding to taunts from David Warner, and Rabada in his send-offs of Steven Smith and Warner - South Africa quickly pulled it back.
Du Plessis is central to the culture of this group of players, especially now that he has firmly established this as his era. Big institutions - countries, companies, sports teams - are defined by their leaders.
They rallied around their players but never launched a direct attack on an opposition player in the press. The closest they came was to say they "expected" Australia to be verbally aggressive. Most of the South Africans said it spurred them on. And when Australia were properly down and out, South Africa showed graciousness. They were sorry to see the way Steven Smith's tour had ended, sorry to see fellow cricketers in such a dire state and sorry that the cricket had been usurped by controversy.
They displayed a maturity South African teams of the past have not had - the schadenfreude may have run high instead - and managed to keep their eyes on the prize. "I don't feel we are emotionally immature," du Plessis said. "I think we handle ourselves in the right way, even though there were times in the game where things would get a little heated. There were a lot of incidents throughout this series, but after every day we would sit in the changeroom and I would sense there was a calmness to our emotions and we were really just focused on winning games of cricket."
Protea Fire - a concept started by Graeme Smith and based on the idea of resilience because the first flower to bloom after a fire is the Protea, the national flower of South Africa - is actually now more about blossoming than the ability to bounce back. Though their ability to fight back is renowned, South Africa also want to be celebrated for playing good cricket and for playing in what they consider the right way. "We spend a lot of time and energy training our culture," du Plessis said. "It's not always that your skill will be there, you can't control whether you score runs but you can control your culture."
Du Plessis is central to the culture of this group of players, especially now that he has firmly established this as his era. Big institutions - countries, companies, sports teams - are defined by their leaders. This is du Plessis' time.
He has been playing regularly for seven years, been in a leadership role for five years since being made T20 captain in 2013 and has been Test captain for 18 months. It's during the last year-and-a-half that he has made his most definitive statements about the direction he wants the team to take. He demands competitiveness but he makes allowances for things to go awry. He wants nothing more than for everyone to give their best, and if that isn't good enough, he accepts it. He has had to learn that.
When du Plessis took over, first in a stand-in capacity because his best mate de Villiers was injured, the South African Test team was in tatters. Back-to-back series defeats to India and England and a spate of injuries to senior fast bowler saw them to tumble from No. 1 to No. 7 in a season. Du Plessis and former coach Russell Domingo's first task was a repair job, which quickly became a roaring success. They beat Australia in Australia and went through the 2016-17 summer with four series wins from four - New Zealand home and away, Australia away and Sri Lanka at home.
It was with that record that they went to England, underprepared, on the back of a disastrous Champions Trophy campaign and with uncertainty over Domingo's future, and lost. South Africa then returned home with Gibson at the helm to play Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and started to win again.
In all that, it was difficult to tell how well, or badly, South Africa were really doing. Generally, the results were positive but there was a nagging feeling that after a few ups, an avoidable down would follow. "We had been winning a lot of series, but there were little holes where we could improve," du Plessis said.
One concern was the lack of consistently-big runs from the top order, in part because of difficult pitches but also because conversions to hundreds were scarce among the South African line-up. Another was the threat of the attack losing a key member at a crucial time, an often occurrence. Both those things were fixed in the Australia series, and South Africa reeled off three successive wins as a result. They started to show the cohesiveness du Plessis wanted. "For me this series is the best we have been right through a series. I felt this series was incredible the way we put it all together. A lot of guys put their hands up at different stages, so it was a collective effort," du Plessis said.
With surfaces facilitating a fairer contest between bat and ball, the home batsmen all contributed. Each the top-six batsmen employed composure under pressure even though not all of them enjoyed big returns. "Australia have got so much firepower in their bowling, so if you can withstand for a while, the pressure will go away and you can score runs again," du Plessis said.
Contrastingly, the South African attack seldom released the pressure. Their four quicks - Rabada, Philander, Morkel and Lungi Ngidi - had stand-out performances, a credit to the work Gibson, a bowling-focused coach, has done. "In any bowling unit, you've got to have good bowlers. We are lucky that we've got good bowlers," he said. "I spent time in the nets saying how can I make this bowler better."
Rabada ended up with the most wickets - 23 - and is now ready to accept his title as the best bowler in the world after months of refusing to be labelled the spearhead. "I wanted to be the best when I started playing. It was one of the ambitions I had as a player. And the rankings say I am there," he said.
Morkel ended in the best way possible, with everybody wishing he would stay, Ngidi did enough to be a worthy successor and Keshav Maharaj sent a message that he remains the No. 1 spinner in the country, but it was Philander's showing which has been the most pleasing.
Philander's England tour ended with him unfit and his former captain, Graeme Smith, questioning his commitment to conditioning. Ottis Gibson set Philander a challenge at the start of the summer. Gibson said Philander exceeded that target. He bowled 129 overs in four Tests against Australia and took 16 wickets, and sent down 242.2 overs in eight Tests starting in December last year, and his average of 16.30 is his best since his debut season in 2011-12. Philander got through the summer injury-free until the last Test when he had strapping around his groin and then put in his best performance with six wickets on the final morning.
South Africa improved with each Test match, different players contributed in each Test match and the results became more emphatic. "Every game we've got better," Gibson said. "If you are going to be the best team in the world, you need performances from all across the squad."
For South Africa, the summer was dramatic but satisfying. As de Villiers posted on Twitter after the first Test against Australia, it was "one to remember."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent