“One bad Test match doesn’t mean we are going to forget a fantastic season in which we have won four Test series, including one in Australia, and climbed from number seven in the world to second in the rankings.”
Proteas captain Faf du Plessis was only too happy to confront his team’s shortcomings at the end of a Test match they would probably have lost but for a final day washout at Seddon Park in Hamilton — provided it was not the abiding memory of a season in which they had “ticked all the boxes” in their preseason plan.
Who is the long-term opening partner for Dean Elgar? Is Hashim Amla’s 18-month demise irretrievable because of his determination to play T20 cricket? Has JP Duminy used up the last of his many Test lives? And is Temba Bavuma’s ability to score match-changing 70s enough to make up for an average of 30?
The four-bowler strategy of three seamers and a spinner looks shaky, even threadbare, in conditions that encourage batsmen — but where might a fourth seamer or all-rounder be included? Is Quinton de Kock’s promotion to number six as simple as many people believe?
“The lack of hundreds from the middle order, the lack of good starts, it was very frustrating,” said Du Plessis shortly before departing from New Zealand. “We had a really soft two hours at the end of the fourth day … there were some tired bodies, but that can never ever be an excuse because the Test series was on the line. All five dismissals were soft —there wasn’t a single extraordinary delivery — so that’s something we’ll address and take ownership of.”
The decision to replace Stephen Cook with Theunis de Bruyn was based far more on the desire to cap the prodigiously talented 24-year-old than to discard the committed 34-year-old, but it backfired. His debut was a disaster with a third-ball duck and embarrassing runout collision with Amla. Instead of a gentle introduction to the lighter side of Test cricket, De Bruyn was thrown face first into its rear end.
Nobody now knows where they stand ahead of the first Test against England at the end of June. The England series will almost certainly require a fourth seamer in two, if not three, of the four Tests.
Kagiso Rabada is the first name on the list, despite a modest tour of New Zealand. He is just 21 years old and this was unfamiliar territory. Morné Morkel “ticked every box”, according to Du Plessis. “He proved many people wrong because he still has plenty to offer Test cricket.”
By a process of elimination, as the excess fast bowlers were dispatched home, indications are that Wayne Parnell is the preferred option, offering both a different angle of attack and the most proficient batting. Chris Morris, though, is an appealingly aggressive choice in both departments.
“I’m also really looking forward to seeing what Duanne Olivier can do because he’s quick and he swings the ball,” said Du Plessis, “but we have good depth in all departments because both Parnie and Chris, who know they aren’t the finished article, are still in a position to push for the third seamer’s spot or as the fourth seamer, depending on conditions.”
Vernon Philander took two wickets in three Tests at an average of 101.5 and, just as he has for most of his stellar career, looked a little short of pace and fitness. It’s hard to know when, or if, anything has changed. Du Plessis believes not. New Zealand admitted before the series that their primary objective was to prepare wickets “to negate the effectiveness of Philander”. It worked, sensationally.
Less sensational for the home side was that left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj finished the series with 15 wickets, more than anyone else on either side. “He was our ‘find’ of the season, no doubt about that,” admitted Du Plessis. “He started his career against Australia, in Perth, and bowled like a veteran with 200 Test wickets. No wonder he enjoyed himself when we arrived here to find they were preparing spin wickets instead of their traditional green seamers.”
Du Plessis had the grace and humility to admit that South Africa were “outplayed in every department” in the final Test match and that “New Zealand deserved to win it”. But he was also right to point out that, while he and De Kock were at the crease, “anything was possible” in dry conditions. “I would have played my blockathon and Quinny, well, he could have scored plenty and reversed the pressure. But stats say New Zealand were robbed, and that’s totally fair.
“We had a road map to get to number two in the rankings. Everyone had put their hand up and contributed at some point — in a session, a day, a Test. Apart from Quinton, who has had a great year, nobody has dominated throughout. But now is the time to challenge ourselves and each other, not the time to sit back and think everything is sunshine and roses.”
It is also the time to raise a glass and celebrate, not to the rain but to the achievements and memories of the past seven months. The England tour does not begin for another three months.
“You don’t go through a whole season winning four series and then start making wholesale changes, but there are areas we need to look at and be honest about our performances; there are places we need to improve. Whoever plays in the first 11 needs to know that there is competition for your place. It doesn’t matter if you have played five games or 100 games, nobody gets to coast through. Your performances always have to back it up,” Du Plessis said.