/ 10 August 2017

Honesty, the Proteas’ brutal policy

He’s back: Dale Steyn is ready for the Australians.
He’s back: Dale Steyn is ready for the Australians.

The Proteas seem to have an honesty policy. Vernon Philander said the Proteas had honest talks after they flopped in the third Test against England. They had some more after the fourth Test — their second collapse on the trot.

Captain Faf du Plessis was brutally honest about how he believed Philander’s injuries, illness and a lack of fitness had cost South Africa. Graeme Smith, the former captain who watched the series as a commentator for English radio, said exactly the same thing, with no less brutality and perhaps even a little more honesty: Big Vern needs to be more Vern and less big. Philander would understandably have been a little peeved at the comments. Sometimes when they touch, the honesty’s too much.

“Vern needs to work on his fitness. It’s happened too often he doesn’t play a full series, and I have spoken to him about that and he’s accepted the challenge that he needs to improve,” said Du Plessis. “It’s fair that you need to play a lot of cricket for your country and be available for selection. I think Vern will agree with that. So, he understands from a fitness point of view with important series coming up, Australia and India at home, he needs to be fit to get through all eight Tests.”

It was a blunt end for a tour of England that has seen South Africa’s best and worst. Two ODI losses to England were followed by an early exit in the group stages of the Champions Trophy. Then came the first Test series loss in England since 2003, ending the side’s boast of having lost just one away series in the past nine years. And they were beaten by what was described by one sage as essentially a nine-man team, thanks to their misfiring top order.

The Philander criticism spoke of the frustration Du Plessis felt with a team that took three steps backwards for the one forwards they managed at Trent Bridge. In those honest talks, Philander would have been well within his rights to point out the failure of the batsmen.

He could also have reminded his teammates that he had topped both the batting and bowling averages for South Africa in the four Tests. Only Hashim Amla (329), Dean Elgar (291), Temba Bavuma (257) and Quinton de Kock (185) scored more runs than his 177 at an average of 44.25 — in the three Tests he was fit to play in. Du Plessis perhaps did not mean to place the burden of the series loss on Philander — who is a master of seam — but honesty can be read as blame. They need Big Vern and they know it.

The trend of honesty sees Heino Kuhn, included in the squad after he scored an avalanche of runs domestically, possibly not returning to Test cricket as South Africa continue their search for an opening partner for Elgar. JP Duminy went home during the series after a run that could have ended his international career, whereas Theunis de Bruyn is a work in progress. Amla showed signs of returning to form after his recent woes.

Bavuma continued to be a rock in the middle order and his move to four for the last Test should be a permanent one. He impressed Smith during the series: “As a batting unit, there is a heavy reliance on the likes of Amla, Du Plessis and Elgar to fire. Temba Bavuma has been an exception to that, showing a maturity and confidence in his methods which could form the base of an improvement in his ability to contribute on a more regular basis,” wrote Smith for The Independent.

De Kock is a magnificent talent, but he took a few too many liberties when he needed to rein his bat in. Du Plessis arrived a Test late, engineered a win in Nottingham and looked to find some touch late on in the first series he has lost as captain. And then there is AB de Villiers. Du Plessis was honest about him, too. Don’t expect him back in the Test team.

Kagiso Rabada used a phrase that began with “F” and ended with a one-match ban, a ridiculous decision by the International Cricket Council. He also bowled Dawid Malan with the delivery of the series, but lacked consistency. Morné Morkel toiled and scrapped and was a handful, but he needed someone to back up his long spells of pressure. Chris Morris was on fire at Trent Bridge, but just bowling fast, as his captain urged him to do, is not always enough. Keshav Maharaj will remain South Africa’s number-one spinner. Duane Viljoen is all heart and muscle, and is considered a long-term project by the Proteas. And then there is Big Vern, but perhaps enough has been said about him for now.

The next six months will be huge for South Africa. They will be uncertain, too. So sayeth Smith, who has seen South African cricket at its highest and its lowest. These may not be the lowest days, but after a tour of England that lasted for the best part of three months, there are questions.

There is likely to be a new coach. Ottis Gibson, the England bowling coach and West Indian international, has been telling some of his former teammates at Gauteng he has the job. But although he is talking, Cricket South Africa is holding its tongue. No announcement will be made immediately, but Domingo has already assumed he is gone — although he is yet to be told. Cricket South Africa has a habit of getting rid of coaches in the most brutal — and honest — way. Mickey Arthur, Bob Woolmer and Mike Procter were all moved on when it was deemed their time had come.

Smith and Domingo never saw eye to eye, and so Smith will show little sadness on his departure, but he believes there is hope. “South African cricket doesn’t need to panic, but there needs to be an honest assessment of how the side wants to play moving forward and who the personnel are to carry this team into the next phase.”

Honesty. It’s such a lonely word, sometimes. Ask Big Vern.