Change in sport is only good when teams are habitually unsuccessful or just experiencing a losing streak and supporters cry out for fresh faces and energy. But it is also human nature to fear change and sports fans are no different. Excitement at the promotion of a new talent is always outweighed by disappointment at the end of an old favourite.
In all probability, it is not the Proteas’ dismal results in Bangladesh that are as upsetting to the majority of their supporters. Rather it is the disturbingly unfamiliar look of the Test team. Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith retired from international cricket more than a year ago but the team hasn’t played for seven months, so the absence of the two players is now glaring in the light of the current Test match.
Between them, they occupied the first two booths in the slip cordon for 27 years, which pleased the eye, but it was the victories over which they presided that warmed the heart. Only in their absence are the great truly appreciated.
Also there for more than a decade – 98 consecutive Test matches, in fact – was AB de Villiers. His mere but sheer presence, never mind his performances and the effect it had on team-mates, is being seen – he is missing the Test series while on paternity leave. In the company of genius, mortals believe they can fly or, if not, at least give him the strike.
Out of form
The two remaining players of genius class, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn, have been “missing” for different reasons. They are both out of form. The former because, well, it’s been due for about five years. The latter because his astonishing success has been built on the back of hundreds of overs of hard work.
Amla will return, soon enough, to his ethereal best – unless there are underlying issues known only to him and his confidants. Steyn, who recently turned 32, is no longer carefree and work-hungry, but his desire to “preserve” himself may be his undoing. The reason he cannot turn his effectiveness on and off as he chooses is simple – he never could.
Faf du Plessis is the genius foil, the man who absorbs the early blows and prepares the canvas for the master. There is no amount of work or punishment he cannot – or will not – take, and he is skilled enough to throw searing counter-punches. But when it comes to turning the tide definitively, he needs the game-changers.
It was never clearer on the first day of the Test in Chittagong when South Africa cruised to 104-1 at lunch against overly optimistic (and consequently loose) bowling. The home attack tightened up after the break, opting to build pressure with dot balls and maidens. A bloody-minded Du Plessis gritted his teeth for the fight. Six consecutive maidens followed between batsman and bowler, honest seamer Mohammad Shahid, but it was the batting that broke. A single at any time, with the bullish Dean Elgar as his partner, may have turned the tide.
But De Villiers will be back, all being well with his fatherhood debut, and there is more to cheer on tour so far than may meet the casual eye. Kagiso Rabada’s one-day series was spectacular and he has been spending quality, and hopefully invaluable, time with Steyn behind the scenes at the great man’s prompting.
Attitude and demeanour
Temba Bavuma’s 54 runs on the first day may mean little in the match context, but were worth hundreds in the attitude and demeanour he displayed on and off the field. He may have cringed inwardly when he heard himself describing the team’s capitulation to 248 all out as “mentally weak”, but he was bang on the money and right to express it.
South Africa’s spinners have, by and large, been butlers-with-attitude to their seam bowlers for the past two decades. Pat Symcox and Paul Harris were the snarliest of the lot, but Simon Harmer also seems to have the control to go with his glare. He is hard to dislike and may settle quickly.
Stiaan van Zyl, too, appears to have all the qualities required to bed-in to Test cricket. Comfortable and knowledgeable with his game, he also had the self-confidence to jump at the chance of an opening role despite making a century on debut at number seven. His bowling is widely underrated, but not by him – and rightly so. Seven to 10 overs a day of controlled, medium-pace swing can change a good team into a winning one.
Bangladesh have been the rest of the world’s whipping boys for most of their 15 years as a Test nation and it will take far longer than six months for that status to disappear. The team’s ineptitude was comical at times with a series of cringingly low scores, both for and against, across the formats.
Highlights were isolated explosions of entertainment requiring an off-colour contribution from the opposition to ignite the dormant talent that most suspected existed but rarely witnessed. The team were easily bullied, too.
But victories, records and landmarks have come in a torrent since the World Cup, where they eliminated England and qualified for the quarterfinals. They have beaten Pakistan, India and South Africa in successive series since. Now they are making their mark in Test cricket. That it is against a team in transition is irrelevant. That the team in question is the world number one is not.