The message behind Protea has always been the same for centuries: be courageous and let your uniqueness shine.
In case you were still confused, we are talking about South Africa’s national flower.
Proteas is synonymous with the South African cricket team and its meaning often comes down to: diversity, daring, transformation and courage. Dean Elgar’s side showed that and more in their 2-1 series win over India.
#ProteaFire started with Graeme Smith and it is only fitting that the fire is still burning under his regime, now as CSA's Director. No Anrich Nortje, a COVID-struck Duanne Olivier, Quinton de Kock's sudden retirement, fortress breached; South African cricket was in dire straits.
The road that led to the Wanderers
But as they did time and again, the Proteas have burned bright as the fire that never burns out. As Elgar walked out to yet another toss loss at the Wanderers, it was evident that they were not overly concerned about the ‘luck’ factor.
The Indian series could not have come at a better time for the Proteas, with them playing their last home Test in December 2020. Two out of the last three home series have been a loss but Centurion was never breached. However, with India not just breaching but trashing them at the very venue, the hopes was stacked against them.
Going into the second Test, the leader of their pace attack, Kagiso Rabada was not in the prime of his form, their No.3 Keegan Petersen was still finding his feet in international cricket. To further deepen their crisis, their No.1 wicketkeeper, de Kock announced a shock-retirement.
Mentally and physically, the Proteas now had a mountain to trek and if they did it, it would be a story to tell.
“I'm a bit of old-school mentality with a new-school twist,” Elgar said at the post-match presentation.
Elgar’s words don’t just sum up his own personality but the intensity that he has brought within the changing room: old-school grit and a new-school intelligence.
South Africa have always had players with certain aura around them. Kepler Wessels, Gary Kirsten, Graeme Smith and now Elgar. Blessing them with the new-school twist are Kagiso Rabada, Keegan Petersen and Marco Jansen.
But for it all come to together, it needed more than just dressing room talks, it needed the leaders to step up and leave an impact. Elgar put his hand up at the Wanderers. Over four days at the Wanderers, the southpaw stood tall as a leader.
While he took several body blows, Elgar delivered the knock-out punch, the blow that killed India’s hopes of an early series win. While he might not have been the top run-scorer by a few runs, he still batted the most deliveries in the series (578), leading from the front.
Elgar’s series can’t be just defined by his batting, his leadership, at times confrontational, perhaps was the biggest motivating factor. His chats with Rabada was of the impactful of all, that defined Elgar: the man.
"I know what 'KG' is capable of. When he's got his tail up there's no better bowler, and I have experienced quite a few guys who have been part of this team. It was a good chat. I can have those chats with 'KG' and he responds extremely well,” said Elgar in the post-match press conference.
The new school twist came via debutant Marco Jansen in his breakthrough series.
Jansen is a gentle-giant, Jansen is a fighter, he fits in the team culture perfectly.
The Proteas needed that, they needed a pace-attack, which in Nortje's absence could stand up to the Indian batters and give it to them.
Jansen was that.
He wasn’t afraid of pitching the ball short and equally, moved the ball around to catch the edge. He was a package that South Africa had yearned for years but the fruition couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Don’t be startled!! He has the second-lowest average (16.47) in the series and the second most wickets (19), all in his debut series for the Proteas.
"He (Jansen) has got a burning desire to play here. He has got X-factor and he is a tough character," Kagiso Rabada said. "That's what you are looking for. And then natural talent is there. He has the ability to win matches. He is an exciting prospect."
Post South Africa’s 2-1 win, he wasn’t anymore just an ‘exciting prospect'. The 21-year old's skillset and performance had now superseded his natural talent.
And then, there was Petersen, a batter that Proteas had always wanted, especially with Faf du Plessis hanging his boots. The pressure on the No.3 was immense, he had traits of AB de Villiers, du Plessis and Hashim Amla but having traits is one thing; putting up a display is another.
“Enjoying it (success) a lot. The longer you bat, the easier it gets (on these pitches). So, just enjoyed it a lot,” Petersen said at the post-match presentation.
Petersen wasn’t just another batter picked on the back of his white-ball game, he was a red-ball warrior. Prior to his debut, he had played 96 First-Class games, faced 11276 balls, knocked a few more ten thousand at the nets and averaged 41.13 before earning the call-up.
But after three Tests, his average was at 15.20 with a high-score of just 19. The gulf between international cricket and domestic cricket has always been a massive jump for cricketers.
However, over the next two Tests, he only went on to triple his run-tally, triple his average and increase his presence by several notches. And as a soft-spoken individual, Petersen defined what it takes to become an international cricketer, the urge to fight and never give up.
January 15, 2022: South Africa scripted a brilliant comeback to maintain an age-old record against India. While the Indian team still might go out and conquer other challenges, scale other mountains, the series win defines what the Proteas’ cricketing culture is all about.
In all reality, the Proteas might not go conquer world cricket, they might not have a generational talent with the bat or have a pace-attack that could scale several peaks away from home. But what they possess is something very unique to them and their culture.
“Proteas are so hardy, they can survive wildfires”
They not just survived this wildfire, they learnt how to build something beautiful out of it. A future.