Before we reach into the box of superlatives in praise of this Proteas team that bossed New Zealand in Wellington, we need to praise two people who are unlikely to hog the headlines in the coming days.
Step forward, Faf du Plessis and Russell Domingo. Captain and coach of a South African Test team that is making us all get up in the middle of the night to watch them play.
Victory at the Basin Reserve saw Keshav Maharaj pick up the man of the match honours, with his 6-40 in 20.2 overs ripping the heart out of New Zealand’s second innings as they collapsed to 171 all out, leaving the Proteas 81 runs to win inside three days.
It was Maharaj’s second consecutive Test five-for – the first time a South African has achieved that since Paul Adams did the trick in 2003 – and together with JP Duminy, the pair took 12 of the 20 New Zealand wickets to fall. They combined for figures of 50.5-14-138-12, which is remarkable considering this wasn’t said to be a ‘spinning’ pitch.
Obvious credit goes to those players who stand out on the scorecard, but the captaincy of Du Plessis has been inspirational and creative since he has, by default, taken over the reins.
Remember the chaos around the team during the 2015-16 home Test series against England, where Hashim Amla stepped down mid-series? AB de Villiers stepped into the breach, but with him out of the side – first injured and now taking a Test sabbatical – his great mate has put the ‘fire’ back into the Proteas.
There’s energy in the field, with the captain leading by example, the bowling changes are the result of a captain thinking every ball, and there’s a confidence and calm running through this side. OK, so maybe Stephen Cook needs a Du Plessis arm around the shoulder before the third Test, but the captain is a hugely impressive individual and growing ambassador for our game.
Then there’s Domingo, who looks a different man after the dark days of 2015 when his future as coach looked doomed. But he and Du Plessis have found a bond and the results keep coming.
Just remind us again though, as the Proteas are full of confidence and producing some magnificent results both home and away, why has Domingo been asked to re-apply for his job again?
Surely, if anything, Cricket SA should be talking to him, and offering him a contract extension, not doing ‘a Jake White’ and making him go through an application process?
But back to the actual Wellington Test.
Left-arm spinner Maharaj got his career best 6-40 with a combination of intelligent, accurate bowling, bounce and spin, mixed with some rash shots by New Zealand batsmen who looked like rabbits trapped in the headlights.
Behind the scenes, I’m sure Maharaj will be quick to praise those who set up the platform for him to launch. Morne Morkel, after his invaluable 40 at No 11 with the bat, took 3-50 and looked full of menace, Vernon Philander went wicketless, but in another Test might have taken a five-for, and Kagiso Rabada bowled with intent at around the 145kph mark.
The Test was set up when Du Plessis won the toss and sent New Zealand into bat – and then bowled them out before the close, with Duminy taking unlikely career-best figures, given it was a day one pitch.
As we head to the final Test in Hamilton, the only question mark about the starting XI is Cook’s place as opener. It’s true that he looks short of form and confidence – Du Plessis and Domingo have a role to play in the next week – and he’s struggling with anything outside off-stump. Twice he was caught at second slip by Jimmy Neesham off Tim Southee, and Theunis de Bruyn is waiting in the wings to replace him.
But Cook has played 11 Tests and he has three hundreds and two fifties. Chasing 81 to win, even a sedate unbeaten 30 wouldn’t have kept the wolves from the door.
I’d hope that the brains trust give him Hamilton to decide his own Test future. What is the point of changing the dynamic of a buzzing dressing room with one Test left?