Twin series triumphs suggest South Africa turnaround despite off-field uncertainty

In beating favourites India comprehensively even as their coach's disciplinary hearing looms, the hosts have shown focus and plenty of cricketing promise

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
"Critical but stable" was how Janneman Malan jokingly described his status after fielding for four hours and batting for two-and-a-half in the Paarl heatwave that saw temperatures touch 40 degrees C. But the field is not the only place it's heated in South African cricket right now.
The team came into this match on the back of the news that their head coach, Mark Boucher, faces dismissal over charges of gross misconduct but rallied to complete their first ODI series win since February 2020 and their highest successful chase at home since 2017. Asked if the allegations hanging over Boucher served as extra motivation for the team, Malan did not give too much away.
"I don't want to sound ignorant or uninterested but it's a big series we have in front of us. We can't have many distractions in terms of personal mindsets," he said. "I just try and focus on the game, focus on getting the team in winning positions and playing for everyone in the team and the country."
Temba Bavuma in his post-match television interview said a little more. "As a team we have a lot of self belief and confidence in our ability. We believe in each other. The biggest thing is that we go out there and fight for one another," he said. "We are not a team that prides itself on having superstars or relying on individual performances. We really try and put in a real team effort. Coming into these series, no one had much faith in us and that gave us a lot of motivation. The performances we've put in over the last month or so have been really good and hopefully that can grow the confidence of people in us, especially here locally."
In the months that follow and as Boucher's disciplinary hearing is held, perhaps it will be brought up that he was at the helm for these successive series wins over India, who came to these shores as favourites. Players from Dean Elgar to Lungi Ngidi have spoken about the good work Boucher has done, which of course will not absolve him for what he has been accused of but may give Boucher some currency to continue in the role.
Judging him solely on the way South Africa have played this series, it may be argued that Boucher has engineered a turnaround of a team whose downward spiral appeared bottomless. Specifically, South Africa's development in terms of their use of spin and their approach against it is noticeable. Tabraiz Shamsi, Keshav Maharaj and the part-time bowling of Aiden Markram outbowled R Ashwin and Yuzvendra Chahal in these two ODIs while South Africa have lost only two wickets (out of seven) to spin in this series so far. "We've come a long way as a team," Malan said. "We've been trying to improve and get better plans against spin. And we handled it better than them facing our spinners."
South Africa scored 92 runs off 99 balls against spin in the first match and 115 off 121 today and have clearly changed their intent against slower bowling. Quinton de Kock was especially aggressive when facing Ashwin and brought up his highest score since South Africa toured Ireland last July.
de Kock was embroiled in controversy following his initial refusal to take the knee at the 2021 T20 World Cup and then suddenly retired from Test cricket after the Boxing Day match. He subsequently had a break during the two Tests that followed, and now appears refreshed. This innings was not chanceless - Rishabh Pant missed a stumping that would have seen de Kock dismissed for 32 - but it helped the South Africa opener find his "rhythm" again, he said to the broadcasters afterwards. And it came on the back of energetic performances in the field. Unlike Pant, Kock himself has pulled off two stumpings in this series, both down the leg side while standing up to Andile Phehlukwayo. "Guess lightning strikes twice," de Kock said.
The same can be said for the way South Africa has played against India so far. After losing the first Test at SuperSport Park, they achieved their best Test chase at the Wanderers to square the series and then repeated the feat with a strong second-innings effort at Newlands to win it. They've all but bossed the ODIs so far, and in doing so, those who struggled in the Tests have come good.
Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma, who are under pressure to score red-ball hundreds, brought up white-ball ones and Markram, who may well be dropped from Tests, found some form in this match and has reinvented himself as something of an allrounder. Crucially, Bavuma's maturity as captain has kept South Africa together through incidents that may otherwise have destabilised them.
"I enjoy it (captaining)," Bavuma said. "I've enjoyed it since I did it at domestic cricket. I see it as something to forget about myself and I can try to see if I can serve and inspire other guys within the team. I'm fortunate that there's a lot of cricket brains within the team. That's a good thing. Sometimes it can be a bad thing because the guys can confuse you out there in the field, but to call on those guys is great."
But none of the selflessness South Africa so openly speak about has turned down the temperature, on or off the field. Instead, South Africa - and you may go as far as to call it Boucher's South Africa - are simply learning to operate in the heat.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent