At the end of a tumultuous year in South African cricket, the Proteas’ oldest rivals, England, arrive for a four-match Test series. This is a statement as true today as it was in 2015.
The Proteas are arguably now in a bigger pickle than in 2015, when they had also just received a thrashing from India away from home and were led by the most reluctant skipper since readmission in Hashim Amla.
In 2015 there were just less than three weeks between the fourth Test in India and the Boxing Day Test against England in Durban, in contrast to this year when the Mzansi Super League forced the India tour to be cut short.
At that time the issues facing the Proteas centred around leadership and the search for long-term replacements for the game’s stalwarts.
1st Test 26–30 December 2015 Kingsmead, Durban
England 303 (100.1 overs) Nick Compton 85 (236), Dale Steyn 4-70 (25.1 overs)
South Africa 214 (81.4 overs) Dean Elgar 118* (246), Stuart Broad 4-25 (15 overs)
England 326 (102.1 overs) Jonny Bairstow 79 (76), Dane Piedt 5-153 (36 overs)
South Africa 174 (71 overs) Dean Elgar 40 (71), Steven Finn 4-42 (15 overs)
England won by 241 runs
The series began in Durban on Boxing Day with Amla the captain and AB de Villiers still clinging to the wicketkeeping gloves. Amla won the toss and put England in to bat and initially appeared to have made the right decision. Dale Steyn accounted for both England openers inside the first hour, and when Dane Piedt trapped Joe Root leg before to reduce the tourists to 49-3. The Proteas were on top.
England’s middle order proved stubborn. though, and when an unbeaten 32 from Stuart Broad allowed England to creep over the 300-mark, they had wrestled the initiative away from a side lacking confidence.
In South Africa’s response, Dean Elgar carried his bat for 118 but had to watch helplessly as Broad and Moeen Ali rattled through the Proteas. De Villiers’ 49 was the only other score of note in the team’s first batting effort of the series. The Proteas were bowled out for 214, conceding an 89-run, first-innings lead.
In the second innings, the Proteas skipper looked to Piedt to deliver wickets on a track that offered some assistance to spinners. He took wickets, but they came at a cost the hosts could not afford as 50s from Root and Jonny Barstow powered England to 326 and a position of real dominance. Piedt took 5-153.
In the chase, the Proteas crumbled with Elgar again the top-scorer. Any hopes that a return to familiar surrounds might see the Proteas’ form return were dashed and changes would come.
Quinton de Kock was called up to the squad for the second Test along with Chris Morris, who got his maiden Test call-up after a shoulder injury ruled Steyn out.
2nd Test: 2–6 January 2016, Newlands, Cape Town
England 629-6d (125.5 overs) Ben Stokes 258 (198), Kagiso Rabada 3-175 (29.5 overs)
South Africa 627-7d (211 overs) Hashim Amla 201 (477), Stuart Broad 2-94 (34 overs)
England 159-6 (65 overs) Jonny Bairstow 30* (75), Dane Piedt 3-38 (18 overs)
The 2015-16 series against England killed off the international career of Stiaan van Zyl, who later accepted a Kolpak deal in English county cricket. Van Zyl was the only member of the Proteas top six to fail on what will be remembered as the flattest Newlands pitch in living memory.
The batsman’s paradise offered some relief for the Proteas’ beleaguered top order, with Amla scoring a double ton, but it counted for little as it came in response to the 629-6 declared that England had smashed.
The Proteas bowlers took a pasting from Ben Stokes, who became the first England player batting at No 6 to make a double century in Test cricket. He also scored the second-fastest double century (the fastest by an Englishman) and the fastest ever 250 in Tests to silence some of his critics.
Temba Bavuma became the first black African to score a century for South Africa in Test cricket, but the Test also went down as the end to the shortlived captaincy of Amla. The match at Newlands in 2016 remains the only instance of both teams scoring 600 or more in the first innings on South African soil.
Amla quit the captaincy with the series still hanging in the air, and De Villiers took over, but before the third Test South Africa were struck by some rotten luck as De Kock somehow injured his knee while out walking his dogs.
3rd Test: 14–18 January 2016, Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg
South Africa 313 (99.3 overs) Dean Elgar 46 (122), Ben Stokes 3-53 (18.1 overs)
England 323 (76.1 overs) Joe Root 110 (139), Kagiso Rabada 5-78 (23.1 overs)
South Africa 83 (33.1 overs) Kagiso Rabada 16 (21), Stuart Broad 6-17 (12.1 overs)
England 74-3 (22.4 overs), Alastair Cook 43 (70), Dean Elgar 2-10 (3.4 overs)
England won by seven wickets
Dane Vilas was flown up to Johannesburg on the morning of the third Test at the Wanderers. De Villiers won the toss and elected to bat, with the Proteas showing a great deal more application than was on display at Kingsmead and they clawed their way to a competitive 313 all out. Hardus Viljoen played what would be his only Test, proving expensive as he and Morris were shown up as the weak links in the attack. Kagiso Rabada’s maiden Test five-wicket haul couldn’t prevent England, powered by a Root century, from claiming a slender first-innings lead.
The Proteas were still in the match until a single spell from Broad turned their hopes of taking the series to a decider to ash. Broad’s 6-17 still stands as perhaps his finest moment as a Test bowler in a glittering career. The Proteas slumped to 83 all out, and England cruised to a seven-wicket victory to claim the series.
4th Test: 22–26 January 2016, SuperSport Park, Centurion
South Africa 475 (132 overs), Quinton de Kock 129* (128), Ben Stokes 4-86 (27 overs)
England 342 (104.2 overs) Joe Root 76 (128), Kagiso Rabada 7-112 (29 overs)
South Africa 248-5d (83.2 overs) Hashim Amla 96 (199), James Anderson 3-47 (18 overs)
England 101 (34.4 overs) James Taylor 24 (48). Kagiso Rabada 6-32 (10.4 overs)
South Africa won by 280 runs
For the fourth match, the Proteas put an end to the Van Zyl experiment and relented to pressure to give Stephen Cook his long-awaited shot at Test cricket.
The return of De Kock and another five-for from Rabada – coupled with the English suffering from dead-rubber syndrome – allowed the Proteas to end the series on a positive note at Supersport Park. De Kock’s counter-attacking first innings ton powered the Proteas to 479 after Cook and Amla laid a solid platform with tons up front – and from there on it was the Rabada show. The young quick showed too much fire for an English team suffering the effects of celebrating their series win. His 13 wickets announced him on the international stage, and it is telling that he is the only frontline bowler that survives from that series.
In the four years since little was done to address the reliance on an ageing core, which now leaves the Proteas struggling to field a world-class Test XI.
Photo: Gallo Images