In the aftermath of South Africa's first series loss in Australia
since 2005-06, Test captain Dean Elgar
said he had to "bite his tongue" about the structure and schedule of South African cricket and the impact it is having on the Test team.
The defeat is their second successive series loss, after a 1-2 result in England
in August-September, and they have now lost four Tests in a row.
Since South Africa's domestic system was restructured in the 2021-22 season, their provincial teams play seven matches a season instead of the ten they played before. With the launch of the SA20 this season, those matches are pushed to the margins of the summer. The SA20 was also cited as one of the main reasons for South Africa's lean Test schedule in the next Future Tours Programme. They will play 28 Tests in the next four-year cycle, no three-Test series until at least 2026, and only four Tests in 2023.
Asked if this is the start of a spiral South Africa would find it difficult to climb out of, Elgar said: "Hopefully that spiral can come to an end come next season where first-class cricket will be looked after a bit better. I know that is in the plans that we do potentially have more first-class cricket back home. But yes, it's a tough one. I've got to bite my tongue."
When pushed on what he was holding back, Elgar did not take the bait. "If I tell you then it's pretty pointless me biting my tongue, right?," he said.
Elgar wants South Africa to play tougher teams more often
Elgar, however, did express concern at the scarcity of Test cricket in South Africa's calendar and asked for more tough contests in order for the current group to develop. "We need to be playing more Test cricket and our players need to be exposed to this level. Even though we're taking a hiding like we've had in the first two Tests here and the England series that we had, our players need to be exposed to that.
"Unfortunately we are all learning in the most ruthless and brutal way but I think there are more learnings out of this than going out and playing against a team that's of similar strength and we beat them."
South Africa's next series, for example, consists of two Tests at home against eighth-placed West Indies. Their only other Test in 2023 will come at the end of the year, against India after the ODI World Cup, and will be part of the next WTC cycle.
"You can hit as many balls as you want, it's not going to change you as a cricketer. The game is 80-20: 80% in the mind, 20% skill. At the moment that applies quite highly for our batting group."
For now, despite the hefty defeats in Australia, South Africa are still in contention for the current WTC final but have to win the last Test in Sydney, and all of Elgar's energy will be directed towards that. While admitting the "negatives outweigh the positives currently," he aims to keep the squad motivated to finish 2-1 instead of 3-0.
"For me, it's about that positive affirmation that you have to give to the greater group. I'm not going to go away from that because I still feel the guys that we have here are talented cricketers and hardened first-class cricketers, but they obviously just lack experience at the Test level. We've still going to show faith in them. And hopefully that turns things around.
"There's a saying in cricket - you're only one knock away from being back in form and got to believe that. For me, it's not just a cliche. I think there's a lot of merit in it. We have to still keep the encouragement and keep reminding the guys that they're not crap cricketers - let's put it that way and to be blunt."
Elgar calls for South Africa to restore pride
He also emphasised restoring respect in South African cricket over WTC points. "We are playing for the badge, playing for the pride of our team. We've got to believe we can still bounce back and put up a massive effort for the third Test. Playing for pride is of utmost importance for us going forward now. I'm sure there's a lot of guys hurting. I can tell you that. So going forward, I'm sure that conversations are going to be about playing for this badge and we need to try and restore a little bit of pride that has maybe been hurt over the last two weeks."
The obvious way to do that will be a better effort with the bat. South Africa have been bowled out for under 200 in seven of their last eight Test innings and only just eked over the mark in the second innings at the MCG. While there are well-documented technical deficiencies among the batters, Elgar prefers to focus on the mental side of the game for now.
"You can hit as many balls as you want, it's not going to change as a cricketer. The game is 80-20: 80% in the mind, 20% skill. At the moment that applies quite highly for our batting group. The thing about Test cricket is you want to get bowlers into their third and fourth spells. We're not getting to that position in the game which is quite disappointing because I always feel that might be a weakness in most bowling line-ups. If the guys are really tired and you're pushing them into those longer spells where they really need a lot more energy, you can gauge or judge what they might have."
But the specifics of how South Africa plan to keep an Australian attack that Elgar described as "extremely consistent," in the field for longer are yet to be fully fleshed out. In the immediate shadows of their most chastening losses, all Elgar had was an admission that things are not as they should be. "We know we're falling short. The harder you try, sometimes the more you fail around it," he said. For now, let's just let things simmer down and move on to Sydney."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent