The Proteas need to come out fighting in the first Test against New Zealand.
‘It has to start somewhere. It has to start sometime. What better place than here? What better time than now?’
Hard rock legends Rage Against the Machine didn’t have the South African cricket team in mind when they wrote the lyrics to ‘Guerrilla Radio’ nearly two decades ago. And yet, some of the words, the aforementioned phrase in particular, should resonate with the current Proteas side.
Change has to start somewhere, and so the incumbent players must view the next two Tests against New Zealand as an opportunity to get back to winning ways. A change in attitude is certainly required. The Proteas must brace themselves for a scrap with a Kiwi side that relishes a battle in the trenches.
Russell Domingo and his coaching staff have failed to take this team forward over the past three years. The Proteas have slid from first to sixth in the ICC Test standings, and to fourth in the ODI and T20I rankings.
Their five-day record over the past year or so includes one win from 10 matches. The Proteas haven’t won a Test series since they beat a hapless West Indies side in early-2015.
In late 2012, the Proteas were ranked No 1 in the world across all three formats. Over the next three years, their batting, bowling and fielding standards dropped, and this contributed to a string of poor results. What’s more, the fighting spirit that had fuelled and defined the South African team for so long appeared to be in short supply.
Perhaps we should lower our expectations ahead of the start of the new season. Based on the team’s collective performances over the past 18 months, the Proteas aren’t in a position to hammer New Zealand, Australia and Sri Lanka in succession.
South Africa won their most recent Test, against England in January, but it would be a stretch to suggest that that result was especially significant. England had dominated for much of that five-Test series, and had secured the silverware after the fourth match. The fifth and final game at Centurion was a dead rubber.
What South Africa fans should demand in the coming months is a spirited performance by the players. Batsmen showing some resolve to remain at the crease for long and crucial periods in the contest. Bowlers taking the fight to the opposition batsmen. Fielders putting their bodies on the line to save singles as well as boundaries. It may seem the very least we can ask of a team representing its country. And yet, the Proteas’ most recent performances have lacked that energy and intensity.
While the New Zealand side is ranked No 5 in the ICC Test standings they possess a number of world-class individuals. Kane Williamson averages 51 with the bat, and Ross Taylor is no mug with an average of 48. Bowlers Tim Southee and Trent Boult will enjoy the quicker tracks in South Africa, as Temba Bavuma pointed out in a recent interview with SA Cricket magazine.
Bavuma and Kagiso Rabada were the success stories for South Africa in an otherwise unsuccessful 2015-16 season. They reached some important milestones and influenced the outcome of two matches in that Test series England. Both played with a hunger and a determination that was lacking in many of the senior players.
One would hope that it’s not left to Bavuma and Rabada to set the example in the series against New Zealand. While the Proteas will need the pair to play their part, it is the senior players who must lead the charge.
South Africa will be without two senior statesmen in AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel for the duration of the series. On the batting front, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis will shoulder a heavy load. If the selectors decide to back JP Duminy, the left-handed batsman must repay their faith with a string of consistent and determined performances.
The same selectors will hope that Dale Steyn remains injury-free throughout the series. Vernon Philander will need to fire for the Proteas to win these matches. The absence of Morkel will place extra pressure on these senior players to perform.
The Proteas are unlikely to win all their Test matches and series over the next few months. They are not in a position to reclaim that No 1 ranking any time soon.
And yet, in the two Tests against New Zealand, they will have an opportunity to halt their descent into mediocrity. Fighting performances at Kingsmead and Centurion could earn the Proteas their first Test series win in 19 months.
It has to start somewhere and sometime. What better place than here? What better time than now?
Photo: Carl Fourie/Getty Images