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Match Analysis

South Africa embrace the struggle to re-embark on road to success

First win in six attempts is vindication for new regime, but that's not the whole story for South Africa

Faf du Plessis jumps on Dwaine Pretorius after the allrounder dismissed Joe Denly, South Africa v England, 1st Test, Centurion, 4th day, December 29, 2019

Faf du Plessis jumps on Dwaine Pretorius after the allrounder dismissed Joe Denly  •  Getty Images

It's too easy to say that this is what happens when you get successful former players involved. It's too easy to say that this performance was engineered by Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis, too easy to believe that the stardust from the greats sprinkled over the next generation and produced self-belief, and too easy to put the five defeats that preceded this win down to a coaching staff was that was disconnected with its job, either because they were facing ultimatums like Ottis Gibson or facing the impossible like Enoch Nkwe. But there was nothing easy about this win.
It came after minimal, but intense, preparation. With two debutants in the side. Under pressure from sections of the country who believed the new regime represented only a small elite. Against the backdrop of an administration in chaos and debt. It came from a herd of wounded buffaloes, some more badly injured than others. All still desperately proud. And it came to the sounds of Shosholoza - the anthem sung by the mine-workers from Zimbabwe which has become the sound of both struggle and success - a fitting combination since that is what South Africa have been through.
2019 has been an annus horribilis for South African cricket, on the field and off it. The problems seemed to be bottomless until two weeks ago, when a structural overhaul promised a new dawn. Of course, that was immediately followed by fears it would be false, especially when Dean Elgar was strangled down the leg side with the first ball of the home summer.
At 111 for 5, the line-up hinted that the more things change, the more they stay the same but then the lower-order rallied. A first-innings lead and a target over 350 at a venue where 251 is the highest successful chase took South Africa to the brink of safety but it was the way they bowled on a tense final day was the strongest suggestion that the team is turning. South Africa need to spend the rest of the series aiming for the full circle.
It will start with selection. At SuperSport Park, South Africa got their balance right with two allrounders, which gave them five frontline bowlers and eight batsmen. The second allrounder, Dwaine Pretorius played a key role in the victory. He featured in an 87-run sixth-wicket stand with Quinton de Kock in the first innings which ensured South Africa reached a par score and then set the tone for the victory push on the final morning by ensuring South Africa kept the pressure on an England team whose memories of Headingley and miracles are still fresh.
In the morning session, South Africa conceded at a rate of two runs an over, and took two wickets thanks to Pretorius and his partner Anrich Nortje, who were instrumental in tightening the cord. Pretorius was the unlikely aggressor and used the short ball to good effect, with some help from a surface on which the bounce has become more inconsistent and unpredictable. He hit Joe Denly on the glove with a ball that kicked up, then rapped him on the front pad with a ball that was pitched up and clipping leg stump for umpire's call. When Ben Stokes arrived, Pretorius kept him quiet with a fuller length, bowling on fourth and fifth stump and forced Stokes to defend.
On the other end, Nortje turned the heat up, especially against the England captain. He struck Joe Root, first on the bottom hand with a ball that spat up, and then on the top wrist, where there is less protection. Nortje's pace hovered around the 145kph mark consistently - and once touched 148kph - while maintaining a tight line. Between them, their 10 overs cost 23 runs. It was the "investment session" South Africa needed and it brought the afternoon's rewards in which seven wickets fell for 64 runs, including six for 46 in 12 overs with the new ball. While Kagiso Rabada was the man with the most wickets, the supporting roles of Nortje and Pretorius cannot be underestimated. The match was won by a collective that was made up of the right kinds of players.
While team composition can be credited with some aspects of this victory, attitude was responsible for the rest of it and will be crucial to the way South Africa approach the rest of the series. The ability to go for the kill was thought to have been eroded from South Africa's cricketing DNA.
After they lost a series to Sri Lanka at home and were whitewashed in India, it was difficult to see any fight in the side. They had, by Faf du Plessis own admission, lost confidence and belief. They were going through the motions, hoping, but not really knowing how they would land on their feet. And they didn't.
At home, Kusal Perera played one of the two best innings of the year to make history; in India, du Plessis lost all the tosses and his batsmen were victims to India's seamers long before the spinners had a say. South Africa were sitting ducks, allowing cricket to be played around them. There was little in the way of initiative or imagination.
That changed today. Keshav Maharaj was kept on against Ben Stokes despite being hit for three fours off the second over of his spell. In his third over, Stokes played on and South Africa had broken through. That moment changed the game, and South Africa knew it. Stokes played the second of those two innings of 2019, with his match-winning century at Headingley. It was eerily aligned that then, he walked out to bat with 218 needed. Today, the situation was the same. South Africa were first-hand witnesses to Perera, they did not want to have to be on the receiving end of another effort like that.
With Maharaj opening the door, the quicks burst through and the smallest crowd of the four days, only 4,844 people attended, started to celebrate something they have waited most of the year for: a Test-match win. They drowned out the travelling supporters, whose cries of "Rooooooooot" were the most audible through the day and reminded the English that, while they have the Barmy Army and Jerusalem, South Africa's own promised land is here, at SuperSport Park.
They have not lost at the ground in more than five years, since February 2014, and have lost just two Tests in 25 at this venue all told. There was nowhere else for them to take the first steps into their new era. Difficult steps. They'll hope it gets easier from here.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent