South Africa's series loss will either be viewed as a precursor for more heartache, or as a dramatic turning point where the rubble was swept away for a new era to build upon.
After England’s 107-run defeat to South Africa in Centurion in the first of four Tests, Ben Stokes labelled the series the ‘Cursed Tour’. Personally, the all-rounder had already endured hardship as his father Gerard was admitted to a Johannesburg hospital with a serious health scare. Like many of his teammates, Stokes junior was afflicted with a debilitating virus.
Alongside Stokes, Joe Root, Jos Buttler, Ollie Pope, Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Joe Denly, Mark Wood and Dom Sibley were all impacted at some stage in the opening few weeks in South Africa. Several members of the support staff were also cut down as journalists started to count those who were healthy rather than those who were sick.
Not that they were getting much sympathy from their hosts. South Africa had just endured a torrid 2019, losing a Test series at home for the first time when Sri Lanka won 2-0 in February, exiting the World Cup in humiliating fashion in July and getting trounced 3-0 by India in October.
Along the way, the head coach changed twice as Ottis Gibson was replaced by Enoch Nkwe who was replaced by former wicketkeeper Mark Boucher. The Proteas legend, who is the most successful gloveman in Test history with 555 dismissals from 147 matches, was welcomed as a potential saviour.
Alongside the appointments of Graeme Smith as Director of Cricket at Cricket South Africa and Jacques Kallis as a batting consultant, Boucher’s presence pointed to a change of the guard. Ineptitude and incompetence would no longer be tolerated. At the helm were proven winners capable of hauling the team out of the mire and back to higher ground.
The victory in Centurion was received as a tonic. It was a balm slathered over skin that had been burned too many times over the past 12 months. But it came with a caveat, at least it should have. One win in isolation would mean nothing if it was not followed up by more successes. And once the virus dissipated in the England camp, both teams were ready to tussle as equals.
England entered 2020 with a team that had something to prove. Stokes was the custodian of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award for his heroics in the World Cup and for that mesmerising performance at Headingley in the Ashes. Arguably the best player on the planet, he was kept relatively quiet in Centurion.
Not so in Cape Town, the scene where he bludgeoned the fastest 250 in Test cricket in 2016. Newlands was packed with passionate Three Lions fans, most of them with the famous Barmy Army, and South Africa’s Mother City had a very English feel despite the blue skies and heat.
Root won the toss, as he did in every match over the series, and batted first. England posted a respectable but unspectacular 269 before James Anderson claimed his 28th five-for, the most of any Englishman, which helped bundle the Proteas out for 223. That they got there was seen as a small victory as the top order limped to 40 for 3 with debutant opener Pieter Malan, Zubayr Hamza and skipper Faf du Plessis all posting single-digit scores.
With a lead to play with, Stokes let loose in the second session of day three, crashing 72 off 47 balls. He deposited Keshav Maharaj into the stands via slop sweeps with ease and faced the pace of Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje as if he were receiving throwdowns.
Amidst the carnage, Sibley’s stoic approach saw him register his first Test ton and England declared with a lead of 437. Not for the last time in this series, South Africa would need to break a world record chase to win a Test.
They never came close. A 189-run defeat somehow flattered South Africa though it was still portrayed as a valiant rearguard. Pieter Malan on debut batted with steely resolve over 369 minutes for his 84. Quinton de Kock and Rassie van der Dussen also dug in and fired shots from their trenches, but ultimately England had too much. Stokes’ late burst bagged three wickets and England levelled the series.
After the loss, both Boucher and Du Plessis credited the South Africans’ fight. Yes, the scorecard reflected a gigantic chasm between the teams, but that said nothing of the spirit of the Proteas. It was the execution of skills, not a dearth of talent or desire, that was to blame. All they needed to do was dust themselves off and come out swinging in Port Elizabeth.
If only they’d done that. Luck was again on Root’s side and he had no choice batting first on the pedestrian St George’s Park strip. That Rabada or Nortje did not take the new ball surprised everyone in the ground, including 22-year-old opener Zak Crawley who admitted as much after a day in which England laid down a solid platform.
Where was the fight that was promised? It certainly didn’t manifest in an attacking gameplan or sustained pressure. Instead, it came in the form of too much aggression from Rabada who celebrated too loud and too close to Root after knocking his off stump out the ground. Match referee Andy Pycroft was right in handing the tall tearaway his fourth demerit point in two years, thereby banning him from the final match at the Wanderers.
Stokes and Pope made a tough situation for South Africa a whole lot worse on the morning of day two. They hit boundaries when they wanted and flayed the ball to all parts of the muggy stadium. Stokes battered 120, Pope notched his first of many hundreds with an unbeaten 135. The pair put on 203 for the fifth wicket before Sam Curran and Mark Wood clobbered 88 off 73 between them to post 499 for 9 declared.
Before Cape Town, South Africa’s openers had not reached 50 for no loss in 16 innings. Now they’d done so twice in three attempts and talk of that famous Protea fight began to spread. It proved a false dawn.
Dominic Bess, England’s third-choice spinner at best before the start of the series ran through South Africa’s top five. He bowled well, of that there is no doubt, but he was aided by suicidal batting. Malan chipped one tamely back to the bowler. Hamza was out with a weak prod and was caught at short leg. Dean Elgar and Du Plessis both lost their heads and were caught off a bat-pad. Van der Dussen handed Bess his first-ever five-for when he cut at a ball that was too full and straight to do so and was bowled.
At 109 for 5, South Africa were in a hole and could only add 100 more before they were bowled out, 92 runs short of forcing England to bat again. The innings and 53 run defeat that followed was just reward for the South Africans who were abject from start to finish.
Rabada’s suspension meant that South Africa needed to field a black African in the team. Temba Bavuma was dropped from the side and was told to score runs in domestic cricket if he wanted his Test cap back. His 180 for the Lions as his team faltered in port Elizabeth meant he was assured of a return. Hamza was dropped and so was Maharaj whose spin was deemed surplus to requirements on the seam friendly deck of the Wanderers in Johannesburg.
Du Plessis was under pressure but his counterpart Root was buoyed by a team looking more assured of itself. The pace of Wood and the bounce of Broad and the guile of Curran made them a formidable attack, even if Anderson’s experience and Archer’s menace were not available.
England’s top three had stumbled on an effective plan. It wasn’t pretty batting, but the foundations they were setting allowed the dashers below to express themselves. England had their eyes set on another win to underline their dominance.
Sibley and Crawley scored the first 100 run opening partnership of the series and already things were looking bleak for the Proteas. Du Plessis was visibly out of ideas but his bowlers let him down. They were too short when a fuller length was required and England scored with freedom.
Nortje bowled his side back into the contest with a first-ever five-for but Wood and Broad hammered 82 for the 10th wicket, hitting seven sixes between them. Eight fielders were stationed on the boundary as South Africa’s seamers were made to look like village trundlers.
Wood tore through South Africa and bowled them out for 183. England clicked at four an over in their second dig and set their hosts another world-record chase. Apart from a few hours when Van der Dussen came within two of a maiden century, the result was a formality. The 191 run margin was an accurate reflection of where these teams find themselves.
Cricket works in cycles and we are watching two teams at very different stages of their development. England are a force on the rise. Young talent is steered by experienced hands and all boxes appear to possess multiple ticks. The form of Buttler is a concern but with Ben Foakes waiting in the wings, the wicketkeeper slot looks well stocked.
South Africa are taking their first steps in this new chapter. Philander is out and Du Plessis looks close to join him. Without them, Elgar is the most experienced player with 63 caps. De Kock is next on that list with 47 matches under his belt.
Boucher must now rebuild. There is a dearth of quality in top-order batsmen in the country and the domestic franchise system looks ill-equipped in proving Test ready players. The coach has expressed his desire to see Kolpak players return too the fold but this is merely a stop-gap.
The entire structure of South African cricket needs an overhaul. This lopsided series result will either be viewed as a precursor for more heartache, or as a dramatic turning point where the rubble was swept away for a new era to build upon. These two teams next tussle in white in July 2022 for three Tests in England. Revenge and retribution for what happened here will almost certainly colour the narrative in two years’ time.
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