The Proteas found a winning formula and a new identity in the 2-0 series victory over India.
Does anyone remember the buildup to the first Test of the series at Newlands? Prior to the toss, a number of fans were up in arms over the rumour which claimed that Ottis Gibson intended to pick four seamers as well as a spinner.
Some on social media lauded it as a bold move. Others dismissed it as nonsense and called for a more conventional seven-four split.
Then captain Faf du Plessis confirmed that five bowlers had indeed been selected. It was a significant moment. Right then, Gibson and the Proteas appeared to be striking out in a new direction.
Since then, the Proteas have claimed a 72-run win at Newlands and a 135-run victory at Centurion. They will head into the third game at the Wanderers as favourites to whitewash India, the No 1-ranked Test side.
Compare the Proteas XI that recently thumped India in Cape Town and Centurion to the side that featured across the 3-1 series defeat to England in 2017. There are a lot of survivors from that tour, namely Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla, Du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel.
AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Aiden Markram and Lungi Ngidi are the only players in the current side who didn’t play Test cricket in England last year.
At the conclusion of that series in England, Du Plessis lamented the lack of balance in the side. He called for a fresh approach.
Gibson, who served as England bowling coach in that series, was sounded out about the Proteas head coach job. Four months on, Gibson has provided the Proteas with some much needed balance and direction.
Gibson has endeavoured to harness South Africa’s fast-bowling strengths. He’s put plans in place to develop the next line of seamers and ultimately ensure that the Proteas will have quality options – as well as a good mix of youth and experience – in the years to come.
Steyn, South Africa’s premier fast bowler with 419 Test wickets to his name, broke down with injury in the first match at Newlands. Gibson kept the faith as far as the balance of the side was concerned. The 22-year-old Rabada was backed to play a more senior role in the attack at Centurion, while the uncapped Ngidi was backed to make an impact in a crucial Test.
The youngsters made their opportunities count. Rabada, who moved to the top of the ICC Test bowler rankings in the wake of his showing at Newlands, was outstanding. The set-up of Rohit Sharma in the first innings at Centurion showcased his control and intelligence. Again, it’s hard to believe that Rabada is only 22 or that he’s been on the Test circuit for little more than two years.
Ngidi deserves nothing but praise following his 7-90 display at Centurion. That spell to Parthiv Patel late on day four – Ngidi struck the wicketkeeper-batsman with a couple of well-directed short deliveries – would have encouraged the selectors ahead of the four-game series against Australia. Clearly Morkel is not the only bowler in the South African side who has the ability to trouble opposition batsmen with his pace and bounce.
The ball that cut back in and trapped Virat Kohli lbw was special. It was a crucial dismissal in the context of the game. Ngidi would have been remembered for claiming Kohli’s wicket, even if he hadn’t gone on to claim 6-39 in the second innings.
These are exciting times for the Proteas. There is room for younger players such as Rabada (22), Ngidi (21), Markram (23) and even De Kock (25) to grow. The team as a whole is not the finished article, especially when one considers the batting performances in the first two Tests.
De Villiers has made a difference since returning to the Test side. He averaged 50 across the four innings against India, and was involved in the key partnerships at Newlands (112 with Du Plessis) and Centurion (141 with Elgar).
Du Plessis (an average of 43.25) and Markram (33.50) made big contributions, while the lower-order should also be lauded for showing some fight and ultimately boosting the hosts to some competitive scores.
One would hope that Gibson persists with a six-five split across the next five Tests. There will be pressure on the likes of Amla and De Kock to step up, though. Both players failed in three of the four innings across the first two Tests against India, and in doing so put the Proteas under pressure.
If the top-order delivers a more convincing display in the next five games, however, the Proteas will continue their surge up the Test rankings.
Photo: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix