What a difference a summer makes!
At 12.17pm on Wednesday, as the sun burned down on SuperSport Park, 21-year-old Lungi Ngidi rolled up and bowled a full delivery on the off stump of Jasprit Bumrah. India’s tailender, flummoxed and perhaps a little fed up, played back to it and chipped it softly to mid-off, where Vernon Philander dove forward to take the catch and start the party.
South Africa had comprehensively beaten the number one Test team in the world, taking the series with one match left to come.
Ngidi had taken six wickets in the second innings on his Test debut.
A new superstar had been found and proclaimed. There was a new smile in South African cricket. What a difference a summer makes.
Go back three months. Just after noon on October 10, Cricket South Africa announced the postponement of the inaugural Global T20 League. Their version of the Indian Premier League was over before it had begun. Their chief executive, Haroon Lorgat, had been shown the door two weeks before, having played fast and loose with organising the tournament. There was no title sponsor, no television broadcast deal and the franchise owners were nervous.
South African cricket came across as a bumbling mess: the T20 Global League had been born in a heated rush, presented as South Africa’s long-term money-maker. It is now scheduled to happen in November this year. There are some who doubt it will take place, but the sports sponsorship management and marketing companies involved are confident it will and speak of intensive, behind-the-scenes work being carried out.
A broadcast deal is being negotiated, title sponsors are being flirted with and governance structures have been shored up so that they no longer resemble the business dealings of hawkers at Johannesburg’s William Nicol offramp.
Last year was a hard, weird one for South African cricket. The Proteas were knocked out in the group stages of the ICC Champions Trophy, Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw signed Kolpak deals, coach Russell Domingo was told he was no longer wanted, AB de Villiers gave up captaining and was accused of choosing when he wanted to play for South Africa and in what format, and there was the wonky series against England.
And then summer shrugged off the darkness of winter and the wispiness of spring. The sun came out. Another day dawned and with it came brighter times for South African cricket. South Africa had one captain — Faf du Plessis. De Villiers committed to playing in all three formats. Ottis Gibson, the new coach, arrived, said all the right things and brought in a new team of assistants to make sure that his words became actions.
Malibongwe Maketa, the highly regarded coach of the Warriors, was named assistant, former Protea Justin Ontong would take charge of fielding and Dale Benkenstein, who many believed could have captained South Africa at one stage, was the batting coach.
Gibson would be the bowling coach. He had turned the England bowling attack into one to be feared. Most importantly, Gibson knew South Africa from his time here. He still had friends in East London. He understood the particular challenges that come with South African sport.
Bangladesh came and went with little consequence. Zimbabwe came and went even quicker in the first day-night Test in South Africa, which had more day than night in the two short days it took for South Africa to turn them over. India eventually arrived for a curtailed Test series that began with perhaps one of the most thrilling matches of the year at Newlands, a low-scoring nailbiter that turned and twisted.
On a wicket born of the Western Cape drought, Dale Steyn, fresh from a year off owing to injuries, tore into the visitors with a fury born of frustration before injury once again stopped him. Up stepped Philander, whose fitness had been questioned by both Du Plessis, his current captain, and Graeme Smith, his former captain. They call him Big Vern and in Cape Town he was big of heart in India’s second innings, taking 6/42 in 16 overs of skill. He set up Indian captain Virat Kohli a treat, with a 13-ball spell from his favourite Wynberg end, bowling a series of away-swingers to him before bringing one back in that trapped him leg before.
Kagiso Rabada saw the opening and terrorised the Indians. You could feel a change in the team. Without Steyn, their talisman and mainstay, they found a way to win. Confidence flowed from winning even with a man down. South Africa had a score to settle after their tour to India in 2015, when they played on unstable pitches that bordered on ridiculous. They were, said Du Plessis, a “team that is prepared to take risks to win games of cricket”.
It would not be a stretch to call selecting a 21-year-old for his first Test against India a risk. Ngidi had moved from KwaZulu-Natal to the University of Pretoria to play cricket. He had already played for South Africa in T20s, winning a man-of-the-match award in his debut game. Injuries disrupted his career in 2017, and then came a hard talk with his coach at the Titans, Mark Boucher. The former Proteas wicketkeeper is not one to hold back when he has something to say: Ngidi needed to get fitter. He changed his lifestyle, hit the gym and dropped 8kg.
On his home ground, but on a wicket the likes of which few had seen before, Ngidi flew. He had to wait until the 13th over to bowl. Kohli was on strike, three slips set. He was all defence against the tall South African. Ngidi’s first Test over was a maiden.
Bowling in tandem with Rabada, whom he later said it was his dream to bowl with, he cranked up the pace, hitting 145km/h in his third over. He was all over Kohli. An inside edge saved the Indian captain from a leg-before appeal that was sent on review. His maiden wicket was a thing of beauty, angling in to off-stump and moving away to get a big outside edge off Parthiv Patel.
But if the first Indian innings was a sign of South Africa’s growing belief, their performance in India’s second dig confirmed that this is a team that could be on the cusp of greatness. Every wicket involved Ngidi or Rabada, and one of those was a runout. De Villiers took a tremendous catch that was only bettered by Morné Morkel’s wonder catch as the big man got those big legs to cover the ground at fine leg before a full-length dive. You could see his teammates hold their breath as they watched. This was South Africa’s day.
It was a day of wonder and belief, a Test of risk-taking and brilliance.
It feels like something has been started in this Proteas team, the beginning of a new generation to fill the holes left by Smith, Jacques Kallis, Boucher and Makhaya Ntini.
The India tour has some distance left to run. Australia will be here in a few months on the wave of their comprehensive Ashes win over England. They will face a South African team that will be keen to show them what a difference a summer can make.