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Mark Nicholas

Beware of South Africa's spirit, England

With Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher at the helm, South Africa no longer look as rocky as they did a month ago. England have been warned

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
With Graeme Smith taking charge of things behind the scenes, Faf du Plessis can focus on South Africa's on-field challenges, which include dealing with the loss of Amla, de Villiers and Steyn  •  Getty Images

With Graeme Smith taking charge of things behind the scenes, Faf du Plessis can focus on South Africa's on-field challenges, which include dealing with the loss of Amla, de Villiers and Steyn  •  Getty Images

Despite England's brilliant play against Australia and New Zealand, South African hopes were high. The bywords - strength, both mental and physical; desire; common ground and general pragmatism - had served the country well on the sporting battlefield for as long as anyone could remember. The locals didn't expect it to be easy but they did expect their boys to be right up for it and a South African sportsman ready to rumble is a force of nature.
The score was 32-12 - easy enough - and the rugby World Cup was secured by the Springboks against an England team that had run out of fuel. Since the moment of the final whistle, Siya Kolisi, the first black South African captain, has been celebrated in a manner not seen since Francois Pienaar shared the green jersey with Nelson Mandela 24 years earlier. Back then, the rainbow nation was finding its feet and pretty much anything went. Now, the grown-up Republic is faced with the toxic mix of a struggling economy, political division and social injustice. Therefore, the need for something collective to celebrate, something communal and meaningful, is important. Kolisi's story is beautiful in its way of triumph over adversity; of hope over more likely and rather less rewarding outcomes. Kolisi is the new beacon.
Rassie Erasmus, the South African coach, turned a mess into a miracle in a period of less than 18 months, which has left the locals restless on the cricket front. Erasmus had only on-field matters to sort out; the present situation at Cricket South Africa is a whole lot more complicated. You probably know the story: board directors have resigned; the CEO, Thabang Moroe, has been removed amidst allegations of misconduct; sponsors are retreating, and the players' union is spitting blood on enough issues to grab anyone's attention.
Of most concern at Cricket South Africa is the financial position, with its deficit rumoured at figures anywhere between R300 and R600 million. The Mzansi Super League, South Africa's franchised T20 competition, is haemorrhaging money because the board failed to do a deal with SuperSport, Africa's satellite broadcaster, while the South African Broadcasting Corporation, though televising the competition on free-to-air, simply doesn't have a dime with which to underwrite it. The domestic players' jobs are threatened and the international players, who are just 12 days away from the first Test against England, don't yet know for sure who will be selecting them - or otherwise. At first look, it's a dog's dinner and very sad.
Until you dig a bit deeper and sense the spirit. In the last few days, Jacques Faul, who was running Northern and Titans cricket - in effect, the old North Transvaal - has been made acting CEO for the second time. He had a short stint in 2012 after the fall of Gerald Majola and the consequent recommendations for future governance by Judge Nicholson. And Graeme Smith, who needs no introduction, is now in position as the "interim" director of cricket. These are two stellar appointments, very much in the Erasmus bracket. Make no mistake, they can turn this thing around.
Faul is a smart guy and calm under pressure. Like Smith, he understands and embraces the conditions in which he has been appointed. Smith is a genius with such issues as transformation and empowerment, a one-nation man if ever there was one. In no time, the players will be told the facts, however raw, and where they stand. Faul doesn't do misinformation; Smith doesn't do bullshit. Of everybody in South Africa who might have got these jobs, they are the best two. It's an Erasmus moment but, you would think, without the time to do an Erasmus. We shall see.
Smith today announced Mark Boucher as coach in a three-year deal, with Enoch Nkwe's role changing from director of team affairs to assistant coach. There are whispers about Jacques Kallis in the mix too and the best of them suggests Smith has nicked Kallis back from under England's noses to become the team's batting consultant. Nice timing.
No team with Smith and Boucher at its core will lie down. Too much has been made of the 0-3 defeat in India recently. These days everyone loses by that sort of margin there
Candidates for bowling coach include Charl Langeveldt and Eric Simons, both previously in the role and highly rated. Faul is finessing the budget - or shall we just say scrambling around to find a buck - in order to secure these key appointments. Linda Zondi is likely to stay on as an independent selector, alongside the captain and coach, whose opinion will carry greater weight.
It is a riveting time for South African cricket and wonderful how, in a couple of paragraphs, things already look better. No team with Smith and Boucher at its core will lie down. Too much has been made of the 0-3 defeat in India recently. These days everyone loses by that sort of margin there.
Under Smith, the South Africans played very well in India and held their own. True, it's not as if Smith will be on the field - that colossal, brazen man with his lion heart and steady head - but his presence will inspire the guys in the dressing room or scare the living daylights out of them. Either is good. Boucher is tough, fair and has the scavenging skill to pickpocket games of cricket like few others. No stone will be unturned. These fellows together are the dream ticket.
The greatest thing about South African sport is humility. The rugby players could have boasted their way around a week-long nationwide tour of parties and parades upon return from Japan. They did anything but. Their manners, generous spirit and inherent sense of right and wrong didn't stop the beer flowing but rather ensured the beer was shared around. "This win was for everyone," said Faf de Klerk and Schalk Brits on message one evening in Franschhoek, "and we hope they have as much fun from it as we are!"
The message to England is: take nothing for granted. Favourites a week ago, Joe Root's men are now either side of even money. South Africa have a good attack and a couple of promising young batsmen. The older sweats, Faf du Plessis and Dean Elgar, will need to make runs as the loss of both Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers since last summer's all-consuming series win against Australia would punch a mighty hole in any team, let alone one so green. (You cannot help but wonder if Smith has rung de Villiers, who is playing in the Mzansi by the way.)
Given three potentially spicy pitches out of four - Centurion, Newlands and the Wanderers, the other Test is at St George's Park - the series may well hinge on the new ball against the top order. Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi are a formidable trio; any of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes, Ben Stokes and Sam Curran combine for a more than handy quartet, especially when the ball swings or seams.
England need to sort the batting and make a decision on Jonny Bairstow that is agreed upon by both parties. This needs Bairstow to give some ground from a previously trenchant view about his dual role. His talent and passion are beyond reproach but you have to make an awful lot of runs to call the shots, so to speak, and that has not been the case for Bairstow of late.
It is an interesting series for the two captains. Root's double-hundred in New Zealand last month will have eased his frustration. Talent hides in funny places for some and in more obvious places for others. Root's has been stagnant for a while behind the demands of captaincy, which is an argument for him not to be captain. It is true there is no other obvious choice and that his players want him in the job, but neither is a satisfactory reason.
Root's runs mean more to England than his captaincy. The trick is to balance them out by putting his own preparation first, something he rather charmingly finds difficult. The men to lead him down that path are Anderson and Broad, senior and strong dressing-room figures with clout as kingmakers.
The hullabaloo in South African cricket and its impact on the team makes for an extra-curricular list of demands on the captain. Ideally, a cricket captain has input in the selection of the team (but not final responsibility for it), a say in preparation, and then takes over from the point of the toss to the end of the match. How du Plessis must have wished for such a simple life during this past nine months or so. The appointment of Smith will have felt like 60-pound stone off his back. Now he can get back to what he does best: grinding them out - runs and opposing players.
It is a series of unknowns. Four Test matches at superb venues in a land with sport in its soul makes for great excitement. England must beware the South African spirit; South Africa, the high level of quality that is England's gift on days when the stars are aligned. The only predictable thing between now and the final day's play in late January is the utterly certain unpredictability of it all.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK