The Proteas have so many significant problems that it is now inevitable they will be trapped in a long cycle of inconsistent performances in Test cricket, writes SA Cricket magazine editor RYAN VREDE.
South African cricket fans don’t like to hear this, but things are going to be quite bad for quite long. How long? Well, that depends on the coaching team’s ability to arrest the mediocrity that has gripped the Proteas, particularly in Test cricket, for nearing three years now.
Before downing one of the weakest Sri Lanka sides ever to tour South Africa earlier this year, they last won a Test series in January 2019 – against the touring Pakistan. Since that series, the Proteas have won just four of 12 Tests (no draws). Five of the eight defeats in that period have come on home soil.
Clearly their issues precede the Mark Boucher reign (he has been in charge for seven Tests, winning three), so to attribute blame solely to him and his coaching team would be unfair.
However, Boucher, who has a four-year deal that runs through to late 2023, is primarily responsible for turning things around. I have no great insight into his thinking, but I can make an educated guess that he is at a loss where to begin.
As a start, his captain, Quinton de Kock, doesn’t want the job and it shows. De Kock couldn’t even be bothered to apply his mind to the question of why the Proteas’ batting collapsed so spectacularly in Karachi. ‘If I knew, I would let you know and if we knew how to fix them we wouldn’t be doing it in the first place,’ he said.
On the reasons why his spinners were so ineffective when compared to the Pakistan spinners: ‘If there is, I’d like to know how and what we didn’t do right.’ On the issue of whether the Proteas got their team selection right: ‘I haven’t really thought about it.’
De Kock is in a mental funk linked directly to the sheer weight of responsibility he is carrying. It is affecting his batting and by extension, the team. This can’t be tolerated any longer. Either he is relieved of the captaincy immediately or he is dropped. De Kock averages just over 14 as a Test skipper. His scoring sequence across all formats over the course of the 2020-21 season in international cricket reads: 30, 30, 17, 18, 10, 15 and 2. This should be Boucher’s starting point in addressing the team’s deep dysfunction, because in the absence of an established and effective coach/captain leadership partnership, all other efforts are doomed to fail.
Beyond that there are a myriad issues that demand serious attention. There are only two specialist batsmen – Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis – in the squad who average 40 or above. Worryingly, many of them appear to have touched the ceiling of their potential and are unlikely to improve significantly, irrespective of coaching interventions. Furthermore, the only batsman with true X factor – De Kock – is a shadow of his former self.
Collectively, this has taken a toll on the Proteas’ efforts. Under Boucher the Proteas have outscored their opponents in the first innings just thrice in seven matches, and two of those were against a Sri Lanka bowling unit crippled by injury. In that same period they’ve scored more than 300 in either innings just once in 11 innings (I’ve excluded two innings in which the team was only required to bat once and another where they chased a low total – both vs Sri Lanka).
One doesn’t have to look too deep to establish there are problems of equal measure on the bowling front. Since the England series that started in late 2019 (Boucher’s first), the opposition has scored 400 or more in the first innings twice in seven innings; between 300 and 400 twice, and between 250 and 300 once. That’s a scenario where the opposition has gotten over 250 in five of the seven first innings since the start of Boucher’s reign.
There are mitigating factors here, not least of all that Vernon Philander retired after the England series, and Kagiso Rabada missed three of the seven Tests in question, forcing the selectors to turn to rookie bowlers. However, this alone doesn’t explain the Proteas bowlers’ struggles.
As an aside, I don’t buy the criticism of Keshav Maharaj. Two of the three series he has played under Boucher have been at home, in conditions that traditionally don’t favour spinners.
Since the start of the England series in late 2019, Maharaj has bowled 207 overs, taken 14 wickets and conceded 659 runs, hardly a poor return considering the aforementioned context.
Maharaj, however, lost the battle with his direct opponent, Nauman Ali, badly in the first Test. This has much to do with the pressure created from Yasir Shah’s end, which is something the Proteas have never been able to replicate given they have a rookie in George Linde as their second spin option.
The Pakistan left-arm spinner has taken three more wickets, having bowled eight overs more. But he has bowled eight more maidens than Maharaj, and consequently conceded 29 less runs, resulting in an average of 10.42 and a strike rate of 34.2, compared with Maharaj’s 25.50 and 51.2. The Proteas desperately need Maharaj to be a match-defining force in Rawalpindi.
I also refuse to make an absolute judgement on Linde, who is in the infancy of his Test career. He is likely to be replaced by Tabraiz Shamsi in a move I don’t believe will add anything significant to the Proteas’ potency.
It appears more likely now that the selectors will be forced to look at their bowling options beyond what’s available in South Africa. The answers could be found in players who were formerly on Kolpak deals, but have become available for national selection once again. Kyle Abbott and Simon Harmer must now be considered.
Abbott has taken 182 wickets in three seasons in the Championship at an average of 18.62. Harmer has taken 212 wickets at 20.25 in three Championship seasons, two of which ended in Essex being crowned champions. It is self-evident that they are among the best South Africans playing cricket anywhere in the world.
Finally, the issue of the all-rounder spot needs urgent attention. There must be an investment in Wiaan Mulder. At 22, he is one of the few players who look to have genuine world-class potential as an all-rounder. No consistently successful Proteas Test team has become so without a world-class all-rounder in their side, and Mulder has shown enough to suggest that there could be high return on investment.
Overall, the Proteas are in a tough spot. I see no path to things turning in the short term. Indeed, matters may get worse before they get better, should Du Plessis, who turns 37 in July, decide to retire.
Settle in for a period of pain and inconsistency.