In the history of Test cricket, only on two instances has a team dominated for over a decade at a stretch. In the mid-70s and 80s, it was the West Indies with their scary pace attack and some gifted batsmen. Then came the Aussies in the late 90s and early 2000s with an XI like no other for consecutive generations. These two sides won across conditions and formats with the help of cricketers that were equally revered and envied.
If a team that came close to sharing this fairytale, at least in the most challenging format of the game, it was South Africa. Since 2000 till the end of the year 2018, South Africa won at least one Test series in every country they played in. They were living the dream of two giants. That of England by beating Australia in their backyard frequently. And of Australia by beating teams from the subcontinent in their dustbowls.
Leading the Proteas during most of this era was Graeme Smith. He remains the only captain to lead a side in 100+ Tests (108) and the only one to win 50+ (53) matches. The players who developed during Smith’s reign carried the legacy forward after his retirement in 2014.
All this was to come crashing down. Since 2019, the retirement of the celebrated players and loss of promising ones to Kolpak depleted the squad. Adding to the woes was administrative misdeeds that led to the appointment of a third CEO of Cricket South Africa in the span of a year. Smith – now the director of Cricket South Africa – himself termed the internal agendas of the administration as a “cancer” that is not getting better.
The downfall in the elite performance levels came into view in early 2019 when Sri Lanka whitewashed South Africa in South Africa. AB de Villiers had just retired and it was the last Test series for Hashim Amla. Sri Lanka thus achieved the momentous feat of becoming the first Asian side to beat South Africa in their den.
The Smith-led side had batsmen like Jacques Kallis and de Villiers who averaged above 50. It had Amla who scored a triple ton in England and double centuries in India. Such has been the drop in quality in the batting unit lately that the squad that went into the first Test against Sri Lanka on Boxing Day in 2020 had only one player with an average above 40: Faf du Plessis. Dean Elgar did manage to cross this barrier that separates the good and the great after ending the series as the top scorer.
Since 2019, South Africa have a collective batting average of 25.57 which is better than only Bangladesh and West Indies among teams with at least 10 Tests in this period.
One can argue that this might be due to home conditions in South Africa which are not as alluring for batsmen as that of the subcontinent. But, in the period from 2000 to 2018, their collective average was 35.13, next to Australia’s 37.2. Even in home conditions, they used to average 36.18 which has dropped to 26.84 in the last two years.
The biggest concern for them is the returns of the two players they invested the most in and regarded them as future captains. Temba Bavuma who averages 31.2 after 42 Tests and Aiden Markram who averages 25.38 in 12 Tests since April 2018.
Along with Amla, the whitewash against Sri Lanka proved to be the last series for two more players. Before that series, South Africa had comfortably beaten Pakistan 3-0 at home. The player of that series was a young fast bowler Duanne Olivier, who bounced out the visitors, earning 24 wickets for himself at a strike-rate of 22. He came into the South African side two years after Kyle Abbott took the Kolpak route. After the series against Sri Lanka in 2019, Olivier signed a three year deal with Yorkshire himself. The joy for South Africa of having found a tearaway pacer was short-lived.
Months later, Dale Steyn announced the inevitable and retired from Tests. A recurring shoulder injury brought an anti-climax to the Steyn vs Anderson battle for the greatest pacer since Glenn McGrath. This was a year after Steyn’s longtime ally Morne Morkel opted for premature retirement to secure his future. He played three seasons for Surrey before settling down in Sydney and signed up for Brisbane Heat as a local ahead of the 2020-21 season of the Big Bash League.
Two bowlers shouldered the pace department in the aftermath of the 2019 whitewash against Sri Lanka. Kagiso Rabada, who has the best bowling strike-rate in history of cricket among bowlers with 150 or more Test scalps. And, the absolute bully in seaming conditions: Vernon Philander.
Ten months later, England toured South Africa in December 2019. This was to be the last series for Philander. After winning the first Test, South Africa lost the last three. The series ended with du Plessis stepping down as captain across formats. The intermediate series between the defeat against Sri Lanka and England at home was a 3-0 away whitewash against India.
When Sri Lanka came back to tour South Africa for two Tests in 2020-21, injury ruled Rabada out. The four pacers who played had a combined experience of 12 Tests. South Africa remains the only big cricketing nation to not produce a celebrated spinner. Seldom is their current tweaker, Keshav Maharaj, used as an attacking option.
In the years 2000-2018, South Africa were the best bowling side with a bowling average of 29.39. Since 2019, this has jumped to 33.81. Not a major shift but in comparison to their contemporaries, it put them ahead of only the three Asian teams other than India.
Even on conducive wickets back home, the average is 27.76. This is worse than the home bowling average of all other countries with a minimum of five Tests.
It is not just the two major aspects of the game that has let South Africa down in the past two years. They are currently suffering from a leadership crisis with no suitable man in sight to lead the Test team. Back in April 2020, Smith announced that owing to his workload, Quinton de Kock – who is the captain in white-ball formats apart from being the all-format wicketkeeper - will not be the Test captain. But, owing to a lack of options they had no-one else to choose from when Sri Lanka revisited recently. The only other batsman with a permanent place in the side right now is Elgar who has stood for du Plessis in two Tests but will be 34 in six months.
Under de Kock, South Africa managed to provide a healing touch to the result of 2019 by handing a 2-0 defeat to Sri Lanka. But, this was not before they lost nine wickets for 84 runs themselves in the second Test, bringing to light yet again that the glory days of South Africa batsmen lay in the past. Australia will be looking forward to avenging the Sandpaper fiasco when they tour in February and March. India will be licking their lips at their best opportunity to win in the only unconquered territory.
With the Kolpak era over after Brexit, some of the lost players might be available again for selections someday. Until then, South Africa will have to do with what they have. Cricket has already lost the real West Indies and Sri Lanka to administrative incompetence. With a history of racial injustice, the issues with South Africa are much more complicated. In what is becoming a sport with three power centres, cricket needs South Africa to find a way to rise back to the days of their glorious past. The task of resurrecting them lies once again with the man who went on to become the most successful captain in the history of cricket.