Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent
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Manchester, early August, 2017.
The end of a tour that started in mid-May and reached groundhog day. South Africa lost the ODI series, lost all but one of their games in the Champions Trophy early, lost the T20I rubber, lost at Lord's and eventually also lost at Old Trafford to go home empty-handed and jaded.
Manchester, late August, 2022.
Close to the end of a tour that started in mid-July and has so far gone so good. South Africa shared the ODI series, won the T20I rubber and won at Lord's. They've returned to Old Trafford with hope, and more importantly, belief.
"We are more sound as a unit," Keshav Maharaj, said. "We know what to do and go about our business a lot better. There's more clarity and role definition within the team. That's been Dean [Elgar]'s go-to mantra from the time he has taken over as the Test captain.
"We had meetings before the West Indies tour and there was a lot of clarity put into place. The guys needed that clarity and it shows in our performances in the last year. He is a driven character. He is a very straightforward character. That's what the guys needed - a little bit of a shake-up."
The South Africa of 2017 found themselves scrambling for solutions after Kagiso Rabada was suspended for a match, Vernon Philander fell ill during one Test and was injured for another and Chris Morris also picked up a niggle. They ended up going into the Manchester Test with only four frontline bowlers - Morne Morkel, Rabada, Duanne Olivier and Maharaj - and were found wanting. Now, they have six to choose from and five are certain to play. All of them are match-winners who slot into specific roles in the attack and who have made up for batting lapses.
Maharaj has matured as a player and is more attacking in his approach but he is also used differently. Rather than just a holding role, he is entrusted with wicket-taking and has been given the new ball on occasion. With it, Maharaj has taken 36 of his 152 Test wickets at 25.05 (below his overall average of 30.50). Two of those came at Lord's, where he was given the ball in the eighth over of England's second innings, with a plan to target Zak Crawley.
Doubtless both Elgar and Maharaj would have been pleased to hear that Crawley will be in England's XI again at Old Trafford but, as two of the three that played in England before, neither will take the hosts lightly and if they start to, the rest of the squad will pull them back in line. "We had the youngsters motivating us because they're not carrying any baggage," Maharaj said.
In an "everyone is equal," environment, which is how Elgar described the South African set-up, inexperience has immense value. "We've got a lot of young guys that haven't had a lot of failures when touring," Elgar said. "They don't come with a lot of baggage, which is nice, but they don't have a lot of experience, which they still have to gain."
Only three of South Africa's squad - Elgar, Rabada and Maharaj - have played a series in England before, and even though half of the current squad played and lost in Pakistan in early 2021, the other half (apart from Simon Harmer in India in 2015) haven't played, or lost much away from home.
Keegan Petersen was part of a winning squad in West Indies; Sarel Erwee, Keegan Petersen, Kyle Verreynne, Glenton Stuurman and Lutho Sipamla were part of the squad that came back from defeat in three days in New Zealand to square the series. The sample size of just four away Tests is small but the point stands - this is a South African side mostly unscarred and so, unscared of foreign conditions.
But they're not just bullish, they're prepared. While South African teams are known for training militantly, they are not always known for training smartly, something which has changed under Mark Boucher and his emphasis on upskilling. An example is Verreynne, on his first tour to England, who was impressive behind the stumps at Lord's and was spotted putting in more drills, despite difficult personal circumstances, ahead of the Old Trafford Test. For at least an hour, Verreynne kept to Maharaj, who was bowling to a target on a full length on the practice pitch, and then practised wide catches from balls hit by a tennis racket on the outfield.
Boucher, on his first tour to England in 1998, struggled against the swinging ball and ensured Verreynne is prepared. And if for any reason South Africa felt he wasn't, Ryan Rickelton is in reserve, as more proof of the depth of their resources. "The competition within our squad is huge," Elgar said. "It's the strongest I have ever seen the competition. It's healthy competition, it's not malicious competition."
In 2017 when then-coach Russell Domingo was pushed out of his job with his replacement, Ottis Gibson, in the opposition changeroom, Domingo left Manchester not yet knowing but suspecting that his application to continue in the role had failed. He oversaw the first South African team to lose a Test series in England since 1998 after they drew in 2003 and won in 2008 and 2012. For South Africa, Old Trafford in 2017 felt like the end of something. They'll hope Old Trafford in 2022 is the beginning of something else.
Stats input by S Rajesh and Sampath Bandarupalli