There is no shame in the Proteas losing to the World Test Championship finalists. It is the manner of the defeat that grates most. Serious intervention is needed, writes RYAN VREDE.
Captain Dean Elgar said there were lots of positives to take from a Test they lost by 113 runs and won two sessions in, at best. I can only assume he means their bowling, and even then, their impotence in this facet of the game on the opening day is what allowed India their stranglehold on the Test. They never relinquished that.
Elgar certainly could not have been referencing any batting positives. His side got bowled out for under 200 twice. In the first innings, the top four contributed a combined 32 runs. In the second, that total was 106 runs, 77 of which came from Elgar.
A winning target of 305 runs was always going to be tough to get. The Proteas have only scored 300 or more in three of 21 innings under coach Mark Boucher. Two of those scores came against a Sri Lanka bowling line-up decimated by injury.
Yet as the morning session on day five advanced, there seemed to be the basis for hope of a memorable and successful chase. There was a clear plan from Elgar and Temba Bavuma – to exploit the old ball and the wicket’s relative passivity through a hybrid of strike rotation and punishing loose balls.
The pair put on 36 and never looked troubled until Elgar’s brain fade, which saw him stuck in his crease to a full-in-length delivery. Brain fades were a frustrating feature of both batting innings.
South Africa needed 175 runs to win with five wickets in hand at the fall of Elgar’s wicket. The new ball was 30 overs away. Bavuma, who looks to have made technical tweaks that have greatly improved his game, was the key. Quinton de Kock has the potential to win matches from that position, while Wiaan Mulder, Marco Jansen and Kagiso Rabada are all capable of making telling contributions in this scenario.
Yet none of these batsmen did and it has less to do with talent and technical competency than it does with a sheer lack of mental grit. Ironically, this is the quality director of cricket Graeme Smith told the nation was one of the primary reasons Boucher was appointed.
Smith’s silence when the Proteas lose is deafening. It is reasonable to expect someone who earns nearly half a million rand a month to have the ability to implement plans that result in observable change. His suitability must now be examined.
South Africa’s most gifted batsman is also their biggest problem.
De Kock appears to believe that he can play recklessly under the guise of “positivity”. This may work against lesser attacks, but India boast three of the world’s top 20 Test bowlers. As the Proteas were looking to recover from Elgar’s loss, De Kock chopped the ball onto his stumps trying to cut. It was an exact copy of how he was dismissed in the first innings.
For those watching closely, his demise started well before that. Ravichandran Ashwin was introduced into the attack and De Kock tried to reverse sweep his second delivery. He then toed a sweep in front of square the next ball. Mentally it was apparent that he was lost.
I knew this because I’d seen it before, albeit mostly in the last two years. It was only a matter of time before the demons in De Kock’s head consumed him. That a player 54 Tests deep still battles with this is a failure of the player and coaching staff. “Let Quinny be Quinny” is not a strategy. It’s a gross dereliction of duty from the player and his coaches.
In truth, it came as little surprise that he retired from Test cricket in the wake of the defeat. He has looked disinterested in the format for some time and it has reflected in the way he has played.
De Kock’s foolishness was not the reason for the defeat, but its nature did perfectly capture the weak mentality of this Proteas batting unit. It certainly gave the Indians a mental lift. This was the catalyst for the push that saw them take the next four wickets for just 30 runs.
Consider this: Elgar and Bavuma scored 165 of 388 total runs in the match (42.5%). It is self-evident that this is a recipe for batting disaster in a low-scoring affair. Yet it is commonplace in this Proteas team and it appears that the coaching staff has neither the technical skills nor EQ to remedy this deficiency.
Success or failure in an elite environment begins and ends with leadership. This was true when Boucher’s predecessors – Russell Domingo and Otis Gibson – struggled, and it is now.
Yet judging from how the majority of the South African cricket media have analysed the team’s condition, and from reading the thoughts of the broader cricket fraternity through social media, the players are to blame and should carry the weight of responsibility for their failings. OK, maybe not all the blame. There has been some vitriol reserved for the apparent poor standard of domestic cricket. Oh, and the debilitating impact of quotas.
Boucher and his coaching staff have largely been shielded from criticism for the things his predecessors were nailed for.
Players have a responsibility to find ways of being consistently successful. This is true for every sport. But elite coaches are central to the process of building consistently successful individuals, and, by extension, consistently successful teams.
Boucher has won just five in 11 Tests. Seven of those Tests have been played in South Africa and two against a Sri Lanka side crippled by injuries. Two more victories have come against the West Indies, who are ranked eighth in the world.
Under Boucher, they have not won a series against elite opposition. Their three defeats against England in 2020 came by margins of 191 runs, an innings and 53 runs, and 189 runs. Their two defeats to Pakistan earlier this year came by margins of seven wickets and 95 runs.
Weak batting has been the outstanding deficiency of all of these defeats. There appears to be no remedy on the horizon.
In a season during which they play India, New Zealand (two Tests), England (three Tests), and Australia (three Tests), Boucher’s team could be brutally exposed if no interventions are made, specifically on the batting front.
While I have some general thoughts, I don’t know exactly what an intervention like that would entail. But, unlike Smith, I don’t get paid R450,000 a month to solve these problems. Neither am I Boucher, who was appointed because Smith determined that he had the requisite skills to make the Proteas a top Test nation once more. Those skills haven’t been evident. I doubt we’ll ever see them.
This may get worse before it gets better.