South Africa’s steady decline

The South Africans draw crowds across the cricketing world and it is in the sport’s interest that this recent slide is arrested as quickly as possible.

AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla... untypically subdued.   -  Getty Images

Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn suffered injuries and largely sat on the bench.   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

The absence of retired stars Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith is clearly felt.   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

Mentorin issues need to be addressed as chief-coach Russell Domingo has come under the scanner from the likes of former skipper Graeme Smith.   -  Getty Images

The capitulation of the Proteas in Tests, over the last few months has been nothing short of dramatic. Even if the 0-3 loss in India may be excused as a slip-up against spin on pitches meant to amplify turn and guile, there are no crutches to lean on while dwelling upon South Africa’s latest collapse against England.

At the time of going to the Press, South Africa, playing in their backyard, have lost the series 0-2, witnessed Hashim Amla’s relinquishment of Test captaincy and eavesdropped on AB de Villiers’ desire to give up, may be, one format of the game. That Stuart Broad ripped out the host’s heart in Johannesburg while the home team’s pace attack couldn’t cause similar havoc, would only have added to the misery.

Already headlines that weave in the words ‘sinking ship’ have cropped up. The descent from the exalted No. 1 ranking may look sudden but it has been triggered by a series of events over the last two years.

It must be acknowledged that South Africa stayed atop, primarily riding on their two arms — sturdy batting and potent fast bowling.

However the retirements of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis — the former bowed out prematurely — did unsettle the edifice. Balm was found in the calm resolve of Amla and the magnificent ability of de Villiers and the Proteas dominated rivals. But last year, the tide turned.

Amla, usual master-accumulator, was not in his element in 2015 and failed to get a hundred in 12 innings. When he finally found his measured voice through a 201 in Cape Town and a 109 in Centurion this January against England, the visiting team had already seized the initiative and the champagne. De Villiers, too, has suffered a drought by his exalted standards. In 2015, after starting with a 148 against the West Indies in Cape Town, he has gone 13 innings, including the ones this year, without a ton!

There is no questioning the stature and legacy that is being built by Amla and de Villiers but in a team that leant on them and still leans on them, their lukewarm show (again, by their standards) did affect the overall aura that South Africa had built.

If the batting did not flower as expected, the bowling, too, had its issues, primarily engineered through tired limbs as both Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, suffered injuries and largely sat on the bench. If Kallis the batsman was missed, his seam-bowling avatar was equally longed for as Amla did not have that crucial fourth medium-pacer, who allowed the Steyns, Philanders and Morne Morkels to catch their breath at third-man or fine-leg.

However, it is heartening that Kagiso Rabada has made rapid progress as a quick in the current jousts against England and if he can continue in the same vein, South Africa will be well served.

This terrible mix of form-issues and fitness-woes deflated South Africa and it did not help that in the middle of a tough campaign against England, the ‘retirement’ word wrapped itself around the tired torsos of de Villiers and Steyn! Both negated the speculation to a large extent but de Villiers did quip: “As in all rumours, there is a certain element of truth.”

There is another simmering issue that tends to be dwarfed as the need for political correctness seals the lips of most of the Proteas. The rainbow nation’s racist past is sought to be atoned through a barely-whispered ‘reservation’ policy in its cricketing structure and that has created a few rumbles. Allegedly Smith had once threatened that he will not play because a player was thrust into the squad despite the skipper feeling that the selection was not based on merit.

None will talk on-record on these matters but it just shows that behind the veneer of recent superiority, South Africa were battling their inner chasms.

The argument can also be flipped as England, too, deserve credit for the manner in which they played. Over the years, England have proved to be reasonably good travellers except when running into a wily Saeed Ajmal and a Yasir Shah during different time-frames in the desert stands of the United Arab Emirates or a menacing Mitchell Johnson in Australia. In the past, Alastair Cook’s men have humbled M. S. Dhoni’s men in India. And Broad, ranked No. 1 by ICC, is on top of his game.

Yet, South Africa can well stage a comeback. For that, their two leading stars — de Villiers and Steyn — have to gain a second wind. Morkel, too, needs to step up from the bowling crease while Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy have to find more consistency with the bat. A talented player like Quinton de Kock also has to recapture the glory that he promised in his debut season and there are hints that he might effect a turnaround as evident from his unbeaten 129 in the final Test in Centurion. Temba Bavuma is another youngster to be watched, his confidence bolstered with a recent Test ton in Cape Town. Perhaps above all this, mentoring issues need to be addressed as chief-coach Russell Domingo has come under the scanner from the likes of Smith.

There is a larger picture that too needs to be recognised. South Africa, thanks largely to de Villiers and Steyn, draw crowds across the cricketing world and it is in the sport’s interest that this recent slide is arrested as quickly as possible.