Mark Boucher hopes West Indies success is the spark to reignite South Africa's Test cricket

The coach praised the return to form of Quinton de Kock and leadership of Dean Elgar

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
The South Africa squad celebrate their series win, West Indies vs South Africa, 2nd Test, Gros Islet, 4th day, June 21, 2021

The South Africa squad celebrate their series win  •  AFP/Getty Images

It started with a fire. On a chilly autumn evening, South Africa's Test squad sat around the flames at their pre-tour bush camp and considered how they had fallen to No.7 on the Test rankings, their joint-lowest position.
"The new captain asked a couple of questions about where we are and where we are going and where we want to be. Quite a few honest chats came out there as they do around a South African fire at night," Mark Boucher, South Africa's coach, said. "The guys all really bought into a process that he wanted to align his reign with.
"That's where we all stood back and said we are either on the bus or not on the bus. Thankfully everyone decided they were on the bus. And it doesn't only work when you are on the field. A lot of effort has to be put in behind closed doors in the way we train, the way we talk, the language, the confidence. That is probably where it started. At that fire."
One series victory later, it's too early to say what exactly is burning in the South African change room besides a spark of potential that could light the way up the rankings, in time.
Their win over West Indies was their first Test series success away from home since March 2017, a time that has included two coaches, three captains and a whole different administration. South Africa's problems since then, on and off the field, have been well-documented, the pressure on playing personnel and backroom staff was mounting and talk of an irretrievable spiral into mediocrity was mounting.
Boucher was in the midst of that, a coach under scrutiny for a string of poor results, but sounded like someone taking the 2-0 result in their stride. "It's not a relief. There's been a lot of hard work that's been done behind the scenes," he said. "We were working on quite a few technical things and upskilling our players. We understood the necessity of us performing for the Proteas badge and the guys pulled through and played as a strong team."
What stood out for Boucher was the way his team handled key moments in the game, like not letting up to bowl West Indies out for 97 in the first innings of the first Test and recovering from 73 for 7 in the second innings of the second Test to set West Indies a target over 300. "We've spoken about playing bigger moments better and we did play those big moments really well," he said.
But he was cautious not to read too much into the two convincing wins, saying South Africa still need to be properly challenged before they can assess their progress. "I am looking forward to the time where we get put under pressure and to see how we respond as a unit. That's where we can judge where we really are."
Though West Indies' attack challenged South Africa's line-up, the hosts' frail batting meant the contest was not as closely fought as Boucher hoped it would be, but there were still two obvious positives for him to take out of the series.
First, was the form of former captain Quinton de Kock, who had a torrid time during the all-format leadership which reflected in his numbers. de Kock scored 74 runs in six innings as Test captain against Sri Lanka and Pakistan and appeared out of sorts throughout. In this series, he led the run charts with 237 runs in two innings and Boucher has reason to believe he is back to his best.
"Quinny been through a tough time of late," Boucher said. "He came into this series without as many runs as he would have liked to but the way he has been hitting the balls in the nets and the way he has been off the field has been fantastic.
"His chat around the change room is funny and lighthearted and Quinny in that space - it is always going to reflect on the way he plays on the field. The 141 he got the other day, this outfield is very slow, that could have been a 200. The 96 he got was worth 120-130. He was the x-factor in the whole series. I am very happy that Quinny is in a good space at the moment."
And the second thing is de Kock's successor, Dean Elgar. Despite scoring no runs and taking no catches in the first Test, Elgar wore the biggest smile going around and widened it with 77 in the first innings of the second Test. More importantly, from a team perspective, he has demanded excellence in the form of five-fors and hundreds and got it, by asking South Africa to play what some may call an old-fashioned, grinding style of cricket that the team have bought into it.
"Dean might say its boring, we say it's disciplined cricket," Boucher said. "The language he has been speaking is resonating with the players, so good on him for bringing that sort of language.
"This is what Test cricket is all about - being able to absorb pressure in certain stages and then being able to apply. Guys are becoming smarter at choosing those moments. It was impressive and it's good to see that the leader is sending out a language and the guys are responding to it."
Crucially, South Africa are responding in unfamiliar conditions. None of them had played a series in the Caribbean before this and Boucher believes their experience will stand them in good stead for future challenges.
"When you have got a young team, the best place for them to learn to play cricket is in foreign conditions," he said. "This is how you develop players, in different conditions, and this is how they learn about their games and the slight little adjustments that can make them into world class players."
South Africa are under no illusions that they are not there yet. "It's important that we understand there is a process, a long process that you have to keep working at," Boucher said.
So it's only that the first match has been lit and now they have to wait to see if the fire takes hold.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent