JON CARDINELLI charts the worrying decline of South Africa’s top six, following the retirement of Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith six years ago.
Everybody is talking about the Proteas’ top six at the moment. The specialist batsmen struggled in the 3-0 series defeat in India last October and have failed to make many significant contributions in the current series against England.
The Proteas haven’t posted a total in excess of 300 since the first innings of the first Test against India in Visakhapatnam. Only one player – Dean Elgar – has scored a century over the past 12 months.
South Africa, to put it broadly and mildly, have a batting problem. Gone are the days when selectors stressed about who to leave out rather than who to include.
Indeed, the question that coach Mark Boucher may ask himself in the wake of the series against England is, ‘Where to from here?’
Faf du Plessis is poised to retire from the five-day game in the coming months – if not after the current series against England. While some may like to believe that the captain’s exit will usher in a new era, the reality is that the loss of yet another senior batsman will be keenly felt in a group short on experience and grit.
The Proteas have been in steady decline since Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith retired after the 2013-14 season. If one is to compare the win-loss record of the six seasons that preceded that double departure with the team’s return between July 2014 and the present, there isn’t a big difference. However, a closer look at who the Proteas have lost to in recent times, and how they’ve lost, highlights a descent into mediocrity.
The comparison below shows how far the Proteas have fallen with regard to their individual batting contributions. This has in turn compromised the team’s ability to post more first-innings totals of 400-plus.
Between 2008-09 and 2013-14, South Africa drew a series in India and won twice in both Australia and England. The balance of that batting lineup – in terms of ability and experience – was outstanding. To be fair, several top batsmen went into that period of prosperity with more than four or five years of Test cricket under their belts.
As the stats below show, Smith, Kallis, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers featured in more than 50 Tests during the period. The combinations grew stronger over time and the numbers – in terms of runs and particularly centuries and double hundreds scored – speak to the success of their collective and individual strategies.
ERA OF PROSPERITY
JULY 2008 TO MARCH 2014 (52 TESTS)
Du Plessis and Elgar enjoyed limited opportunities during that era, yet were identified as the future of South African cricket. De Villiers, who often had the benefit of coming to the crease after Smith, Alviro Petersen, Amla and Kallis had set a platform, was expected to take on more responsibility post-2014.
When Quinton de Kock emerged at the end of that era, some felt that the transition – following Smith and Kallis’ retirement – would not be as challenging as most predicted.
The Proteas scored some important victories in the years that followed – most notably a series win in Australia. They blew hot and cold during those years, however, and relied heavily on Elgar, Du Plessis and De Villiers to score the bulk of the runs.
The stats below – a record of the past six seasons – show how South Africa’s best batsmen have struggled for form and consistency. The averages of Elgar and Du Plessis have dipped following a couple of lean years. De Villiers’ decision to focus on his T20 career has robbed the team of a senior player and world-class contributor.
None of the players in the current set-up have averaged more than 40 during the period. As few as 45 centuries have been scored since July 2014, a big drop from the 77 tons posted in the previous six years.
The long list of batsmen below – and the low numbers in the ‘matches played’ column – show how the selectors have chopped and changed in an attempt to find a solution to the top-six problem.
Elgar has had nearly as many opening partners as there are players in a team. Du Plessis and De Kock have moved up and down the order according to the situation.
So much was made about the form of Amla and JP Duminy toward the end of their respective careers, but it’s not as if a host of young batsmen were banging down the door.
LIFE AFTER KALLIS AND SMITH
JULY 2014 to JANUARY 2020 (54 TESTS)
In the past era, the Proteas were blessed to have truly gifted batsmen like Kallis, De Villiers and Amla in the same lineup. Right now, De Kock is probably the only player who warrants comparison in terms of talent.
And, with that said, one has to ask whether De Kock’s contributions over the past six seasons have done justice to that talent.
It could be argued that the wicketkeeping duties as well as the decision to bat him as low as six or seven has limited his potency. Whatever the reason, a return of five centuries and ultimately an average under 40 is well below par for a man of his ability.
The comparison between the two eras highlights a vast difference in collective and individual performance. Following the departure of Kallis and Smith, the Proteas did not crack on as they should have. A long-term plan was not put into place to take the team forward and develop the next cast of superstars, or at least prevent the situation in which the team find itself in 2020.
Perhaps that is what Boucher – and Smith, if he remains the director of cricket for a significant period of time – will address sooner rather than later. The Proteas will not regain the No 1 Test ranking – or indeed challenge for silverware in the white-ball formats – until they find a way to develop a top six that has the ability to score big runs on a consistent basis.