At the training nets at SuperSport Park in Centurion this past week, something remarkable was happening.
The Proteas players were smiling. That well paid professional athletes were enjoying themselves in the warm African sun was not noteworthy without context, after all, how many of us wouldn’t trade our desk jobs for just a season as an elite cricketer, but given the events of the last month, these smiles were welcome sights.
Not since the South African Cricket Union and the United Cricket Board merged in 1991 and dismantled racial segregation in the sport has South African cricket seen as much change in such a short space of time.
In the space of three weeks, Cricket South Africa (CSA) has changed chief executives, has appointed former captain Graeme Smith as director of cricket who in turn hired his trusted deputy Mark Boucher as assistant coach, respected seamer Charl Langeveldt as bowling coach, legendary all-rounder Jacques Kallis as batting consultant, and his faithful defensive off-spinner Paul Harris to provide a helping hand.
The band is back together. If anyone can get a tune out of this current crop of Proteas, it's these veteran rockers who once graced the stage when South Africa lauded over the Test game as the undisputed kings of the format.
On Christmas Eve, two days before the first of four Tests against England beginning on Boxing Day, Proteas captain Faf du Plessis was still smiling.
“It’s been a breath of fresh air,” du Plessis said of the newfound optimism within the camp. “There is a real energy in the squad, an intensity in how we’ve trained and the information that’s being spoken about from Boucher and Kallis. Even for myself, as someone who has played a lot of international cricket, the wisdom that is in the dressing room helps me as well.”
Standing on the side of the nets this past week, even this casual observer was heartened by the site of Kallis walking the batters through a number of drills or Boucher having a quiet word with Du Plessis.
For those within the camp, this influx of experience and know-how has already paid dividends.
“You hear the conversations that are happening and you can tell that the guys are excited,” said Temba Bavuma, who will miss the first Test through a hip strain but should be fit for the second dig in Cape Town on 3 January. “It’s like kids. ‘Did you hear what Jacques told me to try’ and ‘Jacques said I should do this’. He’s brought a presence to the team. When he’s standing behind you while you’re batting you want to impress him. That motivates you to be better.”
Even Du Plessis, the chiselled alpha male of the pack, couldn’t help but express youthful exuberance:“You are trying to impress your batting coach because he’s Jacques Kallis. You are trying to impress him all the time because he is the best batsman that ever lived. Then you start having conversations and you start preparing better because there is guidance. Through that you get confidence because you feel your game is in a better place.”
Apart from a minor tweaks here and there – like encouraging Vernon Philander to take a bigger stride when attacking on the front foot through the covers – Kallis’ impact on the squad will largely be on the mental state of the players.
“I am not looking at major changes,” Kallis said. “I am just trying to give players options and ideas and let them realise that you can’t do the same thing every time you walk out to bat. It’s about trying to get the relationships with the players, getting to see what they are thinking and helping them with game plans. It is not spoon-feeding them but helping them to educate them.”
In his first public conversation with the press after his appointment, Smith spoke for Du Plessis when he said that the Proteas captain had welcomed strong leadership above him. Now, speaking for himself, Du Plessis echoed that sentiment.
“Cricketers and the public have got a lot of optimism about the team. I feel we have got a very good coaching and management staff right now. Its a really strong culture in the team. Now, with all the stuff in place, I can trust the system, trust the leadership and just enjoy playing cricket."
Du Plessis spoke of over burdening himself with leadership responsibilities as he struggled to get a grip on the reigns as chaos unfolded around him. A disastrous World Cup campaign which saw coach Ottis Gibson sacked after a disappointing seventh place finish was followed by a 3-0 rout by India in an one-sided Test series.
Now Du Plessis can turn his attention to England who have not lost a Test series in South Africa since 2000. The Three Lions have assembled a formidable pace attack spearheaded by the menace of Jofra Archer and supplemented by the experienced duo of Stuart Broad and James Anderson.
The South African batters have requested the bowling machines be turned up and that their own bowlers utilise the bouncer more often in preparation of Archer’s extra zip off the surface.
The last time the teams played against each other Archer burst through Hashim Amla’s pull stroke and clattered him on the helmet in the World Cup opener at the Oval in May. Since then, Archer has underlined his potential as one of the most devastating fast bowlers in the world and his battle with Kagiso Rabada will provide a fascinating subplot over the next two months.
South African wickets tend to provide assistance for the pacers who are willing to bend their back and unleash hell from a dizzying height. It was here at Centurion that Australia’s Mitchell Johnson blew South Africa away with 12/127 in 2014 and Rabada bagged 13/144 two years later.
Both bowling units will be licking their lips at the prospect of charging in with a hard new ball in their hand. England’s top three is relatively inexperienced with opener Rory Burns the most seasoned with 14 Test caps to name. South Africa’s top order is more established with Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram having solidified their union at the top, but Zubayr Hamza will like walk in at first drop and is still green with just the four Test innings.
The series could be determined by the weight of runs in the middle and lower orders. Ben Stokes (whose place in the side is in doubt after his father suffered a serious illness on Monday night), Ollie Pope and Joe Buttler will serve as England’s engine in the middle but will hope Archer and Broad can eke out enough runs between them, especially if captain Joe Root opts for an all-out seam attack, thereby lengthening his tail. Sam Curran’s all-round qualities may swing the decision in his favour.
South Africa have questions of their own. Bavuma’s unavailability means Rassie van der Dussen will debut at five but what comes after remains a mystery. Quinton de Kock looks set to move up a place to number six to make room for all-rounder Dwaine Pretorius who is also making his first Test appearance. Below him, Philander, Keshav Maharaj and Rabada will be asked to be more more than the sum of their parts and combine for enough runs to turn a decent total into a great one.
Two months ago, an English sweep of the series looked the most likely outcome. The Proteas were in disarray and the players were disheartened by events beyond their control.
Now a fresh breeze has blown away the old stink. Smiles have returned the faces of Du Plessis and co. How long they stay there, will depend on their performances after Christmas.
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