The bleakness with which the results from South Africa’s three-month tour of England have been received is to be expected. Some of it may have become a little too personal, but that’s far better than them being ignored — or should be. At least South Africans still care.
Questions about the depth of the country’s playing resources can also be a red herring. The reality is that there are enough good players at the top of the pyramid to form winning squads in Test and one-day international cricket. Nobody should be too concerned about T20 Internationals for the moment: South Africa use the platform as a “beginner’s guide” to international cricket — and have never been very good at it anyway.
Eight of the first-choice Test XI are comfortably the best in their class and will almost certainly play the majority of the 10 Test matches coming up this summer. Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada and Morné Morkel have no pretenders to their positions.
Vernon Philander should be on that list, too, but patience with his modest fitness record visibly ran out when he withdrew on the morning of the fourth Test with a stiff back. Du Plessis informed him that he was becoming a laughing stock in world cricket and a liability to the team. At his best, though, he is unsurpassed.
“Vern is probably the best in the world in seaming — swinging conditions, which we had in all four Test matches, so not having him here was very frustrating and disappointing,” Du Plessis said.
“It is a challenge for him because it’s happened too often that he doesn’t play a full series. I’ve spoken to him about that and he’s accepted the challenge. There have just been too many times when we as a team go, ‘Gulp, Vern might be injured again.’ So he’s taken it on board from a fitness point of view. We have important series coming up, India and Australia at home, it’s eight Test matches and he needs to be fit to get through all of them.”
Philander’s fitness aside, the most important task facing Du Plessis, the new coach and anybody else with influence over the country’s greatest modern-era batsman, is persuading AB de Villiers to make himself available for those Test matches. “Persuasion” of the wrong sort would be counterproductive. A reluctant De Villiers would be a shadow of his real self. Du Plessis knows him better than most and he holds out little hope. His frustration is obvious, too.
“I would love AB to play — we all know how good he is and we’ve missed him, but we’ve spent too much time talking about when he is going to come back. The hope of him coming back is something we need to move past. We need to find someone else who can fulfil that role. If AB comes back it’s a huge bonus, but I don’t expect him to come back into the Test team.”
Acquiring the services of Ottis Gibson as the new coach, although far from straightforward, might be easier. He remains contracted to the England cricket board as bowling coach and, if they do allow him to move to a position he clearly covets, there may be compensation to pay — and Cricket South Africa does not part with its cash easily. Perhaps the millions of dollars supposedly being paid by the global T20 franchises will change that.
Bangladesh are the first summer visitors and they will not be the pushovers they once were. The Proteas need to find an opening partner for Elgar and decide whether to pursue a four-man pace attack with the excellent Maharaj providing the spin or revert to the three-seamer policy, which served them so well with Dale Steyn still on board. Steyn is 34 and will have been out of the game for 11 months once the first Test is played. He might have another year at the highest level, or even two, but starting a Test match with both him and Philander would seem an unwise gamble.
If Gibson, former West Indian all-rounder and coach, is confirmed as the replacement for Russell Domingo, he will begin his tenure with some extremely good raw material. And some excellent matured material, for that matter.
He was a fine player during a career that included six seasons in South Africa during the 1990s, during which he developed a strong affection for and affinity with the country. He will not be caught unawares by the unique demands of South African cricket. In fact, they are one of the reasons he was so keen to make himself available.
The ODI series in England was lost. The Champions Trophy ended in ignominy. The T20 series was lost. England won three Tests in a series against South Africa for the first time since 1960, and won a series on home soil against them for the first since 1998. It all felt extremely gloomy. But there are reasons to be confident that it might all brighten up again soon — at least in the short term.