South African cricket rises stronger through upheaval

  • A team in transition unearthed some sparkling new talent to show just how deep their talent pool runs
South African cricket rises stronger through upheaval(REUTERS) PREMIUM
South African cricket rises stronger through upheaval(REUTERS)
Published on Jan 17, 2022 05:58 PM IST
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By, New Delhi

In the four years since India’s last visit to South African shores, there had been a stark change in the Proteas team. Back in 2018, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis formed the fulcrum of the batting unit at No 3, 4 and 5. These prime spots were being occupied this time by Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma, players with creditable first-class records who hadn’t yet sparkled at the international level.

The bowling line-up back then was fronted by the collective might of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada. Rabada’s world-class credentials aside, the combined experience of those alongside him – Lungi Ngidi, Duanne Olivier and Marco Jansen – now was a mere 20 Tests. Rabada’s main pace ally, Anrich Nortje, was ruled out of the series with an injury even before a ball was bowled.

So, when the pre-series build-up was dominated by talk of this being India’s best chance to win in South Africa, there was a pretty good reason for that point of view. The Indians had run South Africa close even in the 2-1 series defeat in 2018, and anything less than a series triumph now for a team with successive wins in Australia and a series lead in England seemed inconceivable.

The chasm between the two sides only seemed to get wider after India’s commanding win in the first Test and the retirement of Quinton de Kock, the only player apart from skipper Dean Elgar in the South African team with experience of more than 50 Tests.

Strong through upheavals

But South Africa’s stirring comeback in the next two Tests highlights an aspect they don’t always get credit for. That, despite the upheaval caused by the retirements of senior players in the last two years and the findings into racial discrimination in the sport, there is an underlying depth and resolve in South African cricket which keeps pushing through cricketers ready for the international stage.

The emergence of Marco Jansen is a case in point. While Rabada is on his path to all-time greatness – his strike rate of 40.7 is the best among those with 200+ wickets – they suddenly also have the unique gifts of Jansen to unleash on batters around the world. At 6 feet 8 inches, the 21-year-old pacer generates disconcerting bounce from a left-arm angle and, as his altercation with Jasprit Bumrah showed, carries a mean streak in him.

He returned 19 wickets in three Tests to finish second behind Rabada in the wicket-takers’ list. The fact that he was slotted at No 7 in the last two Tests also suggests batting potential waiting to be unearthed.

India would give anything to have a cricketer of Jansen’s range at their disposal.

South Africa coach Mark Boucher knows they have a superstar on their hands. “A lot of people questioned his selection in the first Test. We saw what he had. It was just a matter of time before he came through. He brings variation that is hard to find these days. He didn’t start off too well, but everybody seems to be now saying that we have found a superstar who is just 21. We have seen great signs with the bat as well. He is only going to get better and that bodes well for the Proteas,” Boucher told a media gathering after their 2-1 series win over India.

The rise of Keegan Petersen

Alongside Jansen, Keegan Petersen has also shown that he can be part of the nucleus of a rejuvenated unit. At 28, he isn’t exactly brimming with youthful exuberance, but he has the credentials to make the No 3 spot his own for many years to come. Aiden Markram’s struggles against the incoming ball meant Petersen was often in early. Seldom did he allow the South African middle-order to be exposed early though, the simplicity of his technique shining through in his three half-centuries.

“Batting at No 3 in South Africa, you’ve got to be tough and know your game. You’ve got to be technically sound. The way he has come through in this series, I am lost for words,” Boucher said.

South Africa do not have the resources or financial muscle that say India, England or Australia have, but Boucher is starting to see depth in their talent pool once again.

“It’s up to you guys to decide whether we have turned a corner. I believe we turned a corner quite a while ago. Our results have been pretty solid for the last six months to a year. We went through a period during Covid where our directive was to just get cricket back up and running. We had the chance to try out a few players. We are now starting to find the depth of cricketers that we can turn to. We’ve been through some tough times,” the head coach said.

The end of Kolpak

The 45-year-old Boucher was part of a generation, of course, when South African cricket had no shortage of big names. So much so that they could afford to lose a host of players to other countries – Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Neil Wagner and Grant Elliott instantly come to mind – ostensibly due to the quota system and yet not be impacted. There was also the Kolpak ruling that saw the likes of Jacques Rudolph and Kyle Abbott among many others prefer lucrative county deals in England over playing for South Africa. No other country has had to cope with such a talent exodus.

While the quota system continues to polarise opinion, it must have come as a relief to South Africa that the Kolpak era ended in 2020 after the implementation of Brexit that saw the United Kingdom leave the European Union. It enabled the return of Duanne Olivier for the India series, for instance, after a three-year gap. More importantly, it ensures that the futures of the likes of Jansen and Petersen are inextricably tied to South African cricket and that the depth that Boucher spoke of gets even bigger.

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    Vivek Krishnan is a sports journalist who enjoys covering cricket and football among other disciplines. He wanted to be a cricketer himself but has gladly settled for watching and writing on different sports.

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