It might not have been a good year in Tests for the Proteas, but there’s room for optimism going forward.
The agonising wait for the traditionalists begins. A wait that only sees the Proteas play Test cricket again in August. Perhaps it’s a good thing for the dust to settle as attention turns to the World T20. It’s a chance for a fresh start, and while it might not appear this way at the moment, there’s plenty to look forward to.
There are three things in particular to look forward to: A secure and steady opening pair, a bevy of options in the middle order, and AB de Villiers’ and Dale Steyn’s commitment to Test cricket.
The selectors finally gave Stephen Cook a go, and he took his chance handsomely, scoring a century on debut. If it was too little too late, what it has done is it has secured his place in the team. The armchair selectors don’t need to shout anymore. He can play Test cricket, and he will play Test cricket. And in Dean Elgar, one of the better performers with the bat in the England series, there is finally some solidity at the top of the order. Elgar’s potential to be a captain is a question to be asked later, but at least now there is a consistent pair for the foreseeable future.
The Proteas don’t have a No 5 batsman at the moment. JP Duminy and Faf du Plessis have struggled for some time now, and their selection will come into question come August. But it’s really not worth fretting about, because there are more-than-capable alternatives.
Rilee Rossouw should have been handed a debut at Centurion, but what he must do now is continue to pile on the runs, whether it be for the Knights or in the ODIs/T20s. That position is there for the taking, and Stiaan van Zyl will look to forget he ever had a stint as an opener and fight for it, too. Theunis de Bruyn has bags of potential, as does Omphile Ramela. He’s better than his stats suggest; his form over the last year for the Cobras, where he’s now captain, and SA A, are testimony to that. Dare I say, if David Miller has any five-day aspirations, he should make the most of his No 4 spot that he currently occupies with the Dolphins. There is plenty of depth there to join the classy Temba Bavuma, who has a long Test career ahead of him.
There will always be a case for an all-rounder, but I have my doubts about there being one good enough to bat at No 7 at the moment. Chris Morris and Vernon Philander don’t quite fit the bill, but the selectors should be starting to get excited about the way Dwaine Pretorius has been playing for the Highveld Lions this season.
AB de Villiers has been very vocal throughout the series, and for all of the rumours about his retirement, his workload and his future, the most important quote to have come out of it all is ‘I was never thinking of leaving Test cricket at all’. Dale Steyn has also used the press to rubbish the rumours that he’s past his sell-by date. ‘Injuries can happen to anybody but I’m still one of the fittest players in the squad and I have many, many overs left in me.’
These quotes alone should be treated as the best piece of news that Proteas fans have heard all year. Consider the systematic retirements of Sri Lankan pair Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. They played on longer than they ideally wanted to, but the balance of youth and experience wouldn’t have been right if they hadn’t. The result? Angelo Mathews is now an assured and respected captain, and Denesh Chandimal has turned into a world-class wicketkeeper-batsman. The dents caused by Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith’s retirements are still there, and to lose two of the side’s most experienced and best performing players would be a travesty in what is already a period of transition.
To avoid running the risk of overkill, I won’t go into too much detail about Kagiso Rabada. His star is shining bright, but at 20, you need experienced campaigners like Steyn and Philander there. There’s no substitute for pace, and South Africa have that in the likes of up-and-coming quicks Hardus Viljoen and Marchant de Lange. There are options there, and they must be integrated with experience.
The reality is, no team stays at the top of the rankings forever. The priority, starting in August, will be to get back up there, and the quality, and depth, is there to do so.