The Proteas have rediscovered their spark over the past three months. The limited-overs side played with more purpose and intensity over the course of the World Twenty20 staged in the UAE and Oman, while the Test team played a more combative brand of cricket during a highly charged series against top-ranked India.
It may be some time yet before the latest cultural shift translates into a string of consistent results and – whisper it – major trophies. That said, progress has been made during a challenging time for South African cricket. The national squad is heading in the right direction.
Change in attitude
Test captain Dean Elgar delivered a statement of intent when he batted for more than five hours to guide South Africa to victory against India at the Wanderers.
Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma showed their grit in what were volatile batting conditions in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
When Elgar needed a breakthrough, 50-Test veteran Kagiso Rabada stepped up to produce an inspiring spell. The desperation and accuracy shown by the fielders across the series was yet another highlight.
Bavuma spoke about this change in attitude in a wide-ranging interview with DM168. As the captain of the limited-overs teams and as vice-captain of the Test side, he is best placed to expand on the group’s values and how they may inspire a revival over the course of a bumper year for South African cricket.
He cites the 2021 World T20 campaign as a turning point for the Proteas, and marks the three-game ODI series against India – which will commence on 19 January in Paarl – as a golden opportunity to build.
“While we were pleased with the progress made at the World T20, we were honest about how far we still have to go,” Bavuma said.
“We have a world-class bowling unit comparable with any on the planet, and they have proved themselves time and again by winning big matches for the team. Our batting is not in the category yet, but the fundamentals are in place.”
Even without Anrich Nortje, who withdrew from the recent Tests due to injury, the Proteas still boast Rabada and Lungi Ngidi in their fast-bowling ranks, as well as spinners of the quality of Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj.
Newcomer Marco Jansen, the 2.04m-tall left-arm quick, who appears born for the big occasion, could also be unleashed in the 50-over format for the first time.
Quinton de Kock will bolster the ODI batting line-up when he returns from paternity leave. The gifted wicketkeeper/batter stunned the cricketing fraternity when he announced his retirement from Tests two weeks ago.
For now, De Kock remains committed to the limited-overs teams and should continue in his role at the top of the order. The best opening and middle-order combinations remain a point of debate, though. The three ODIs against India should give the selectors some food for thought.
Performance against spin
A versatile and dangerous India bowling attack will provide a stern examination for the hosts.
Leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal was one of India’s most destructive weapons when they toured South Africa back in 2018. India’s wrist-spinners combined to take 33 wickets across that six-game series, which the visitors won by a resounding 5-1 margin.
The Proteas were without De Kock and Faf du Plessis at that stage, and the remaining senior batters failed to rise to the challenge, as the averages of Hashim Amla (25.66), David Miller (21.40), Aiden Markram (21.16), AB de Villiers (20.66) and JP Duminy (19.80) confirm. Of that group, Amla and Duminy were the only players to score half-centuries.
A year later, at the 2019 World Cup, Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav ripped through the Proteas’ top and middle order to set up a six-wicket win for India. None of the specialist batters scored more than 38 on that occasion, and South Africa were widely criticised for a lack of progress.
Will the batters be ready for Chahal and company on this occasion? De Villiers moved on after that 2018 series against India, whereas Amla and Du Plessis bowed out from ODIs after the 2019 World Cup. Others such as De Kock, Markram and Miller remain key players in the South African set-up.
“Perceptions are changing about this South African white-ball team,” Bavuma said. “In the past, it was said that we lacked the ability to take on spin and that we struggled in overseas conditions.
“I feel like we proved a lot of people wrong at the T20 World Cup. We’ve just got to keep building towards that next T20 World Cup in Australia, which will require another shift in mindset. The ODI side has a lot more to accomplish. There are some new faces in the mix, and some question marks over several positions,” he said.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to finish the series against the Netherlands this past December [due to the Omicron outbreak and resultant travel restrictions]. It was a shame, as we viewed those three games as important to our process.
“We will have to get things right in the next ODI series against India,” Bavuma added. “I’m not too worried about what happened in that 2018 series. I’m more concerned about establishing our own style of play and implementing our strategy to good effect.”
A springboard to future success
After facing India, the Proteas ODI side will host Bangladesh for a three-match series in March. Thereafter, they will tackle two of the world’s best teams, England and Australia, away from home. The next 50-over World Cup will be staged in India over October and November in 2023.
“A ODI series win against India would give us a helluva lot of confidence, and some momentum ahead of the games to follow,” said Bavuma.
“Perhaps we should take heart from what the T20 side has accomplished in recent times. That team didn’t place much emphasis on results, but rather on the process. We really came to grips with how we wanted to play. There was a lot of energy and intensity, especially with regard to our fielding.
“Then we start to win consistently. Since the beginning of the West Indies series last June, we’ve won 13 out 16 T20s. It’s something we want to replicate across the formats. If we bring the same energy to our ODI approach, we will build more confidence and momentum, and the big results will come.”
A series win against India would rank as a big achievement and would serve to show that the Proteas are once more a force to be reckoned with. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.