Much has changed since South Africa last played a Test in the Caribbean. A juggernaut pandemic had yet to destroy our idea of the world, and all but seven of the 19 players in Dean Elgar’s squad foe two Tests in St Lucia next month had yet to make their first-class debuts.
South Africa’s XI for that June 2010 match at Kensington Oval took 619 Test caps worth of experience onto the field. The side for their most recent Test, against Pakistan in Rawalpindi in February, can count 359 appearances among them. Sixty-nine belong to Faf du Plessis, who has retired from the format.
Elgar’s team will thus have less than half the accumulated knowledge and maturity at their disposal compared to their predecessors, who beat West Indies by seven wickets to claim the series 2-0. That was the first of 28 victories South Africa would claim in 45 consecutive matches across the formats. They lost 14 of them. Of their most recent 45 matches, South Africa have won 16 and lost 29. They have become half the team they used to be in more than one sense.
That 2010 side was led by Graeme Smith and included Mark Boucher. Their success as players has not been transferred to their current roles as director of cricket and head coach, although they cannot be blamed for all that has gone wrong: South Africa had lost nine of 13 of their last 45 games when Smith and Boucher were appointed in December 2019. The rot goes far beyond the boundary to the chronic dysfunction and mismanagement that has blighted CSA for years. Smith, Boucher and the players are only the visible tip of this iceberg of unhappiness. But the job of publicly cleaning up the mess – even the vast swathe of it that is not their doing – falls to them.
Elgar is South Africa’s third Test captain since Smith and Boucher took over. Less obvious, but no less important, is that in the same period CSA have fired one chief executive on charges of serious misconduct and appointed three more in acting capacities. Cricket has also had to rid itself, with the help of government, of a risibly inept elected board. And navigate the removal of one interim chair. And fight off the malignant intentions of the country’s increasingly irrelevant but still powerful umbrella body just to make its constitution fit for purpose in governance terms. As always in cricket in South Africa, there’s a lot going on.
“Now that we’re in a new chapter we need to play more cricket, and we need to play better cricket,” Elgar told an online press conference on Saturday. “We’re very conscious that over the last period we haven’t been very consistent. Our skill level hasn’t been where it should be.”
Elgar made his Test debut in November 2012 in a team that had risen to the top of the rankings five months earlier and would retain the No. 1 spot – except for an interruption of three months by Australia – until January 2016, when India usurped them. South Africa are currently seventh, one place behind West Indies. You would be forgiven for not paying much attention to the second Test in St Lucia: it coincides with the World Test Championship (WTC) final between India and New Zealand in Southampton.
“We want to compete and we want to play in a final of the World Test Championship; that’s pretty high on my bucket list,” Elgar said. “But I understand that there’s a way and a process you’ve got to follow in order to do that. We’ve need to get back to more consistent cricket, a more South African way. It’s challenging to get players to believe in the process and to do it quickly and adapt quickly. I’ll do everything in my power to get us up the rankings.”
What is that South African way? “We’ve always had fast bowlers as our natural weapons, and a batting line-up that’s scored heavily. We need to get back to scoring big hundreds. We need to get back to taking five-fors. Like it used to be – something we were accustomed to growing up; a rich culture of success. We know that we need to get back to those kinds of South African characteristics.”
South Africa have had only three centuries and six five-wicket hauls in their last eight Tests. Elgar has scored two centuries in 35 completed innings and Quinton de Kock has gone 19 trips to the Test crease without a hundred, though they have passed 70 five times between them. The undisputed ace of the attack, Kagiso Rabada, hasn’t claimed five wickets in an innings for 17 Tests.
Little wonder, perhaps, that Elgar’s beard is a touch greyer as he nears his first Test as South Africa’s appointed captain, a job he has done twice as a caretaker. “I’m going to call it wisdom and knowledge,” he said of his new look. “Nothing to do with the job, but I think [my beard] might be a little bit whiter after my two-year appointment.”
Colour might seep back into the skipper’s whiskers when he considers that he will have a full-strength squad to pick from. The scenario was starkly different when David Miller, Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, De Kock and Rabada disappeared from South Africa’s ranks in the middle of their white-ball series against Pakistan in April to go to the IPL. “Those players are so valuable for us,” Elgar said. “Unfortunately the demand for them around world cricket is great. To have them and their knowledge back is something I wouldn’t be able to replicate. We don’t have a load of experience floating around so those players are massive for our environment.”
Indeed. So who might replace Du Plessis, a monument to grit, professionalism and sheer presence? “A guy like Keegan Petersen comes into the mix,” Elgar said. “There’s a lot of room for him to make an impact in our batting line-up. He’s a seasoned campaigner, he’s got good energy and a good attitude, and he brings a different dynamic to our line-up.” Uncapped Petersen, who turns 28 in August, has scored 16 centuries in his 97 first-class matches.
No doubt he never thought he would have to contend with Covid-19 along with everything else involved in making a Test debut. The South Africans will spend their first three days in the Caribbean confined to their hotel rooms. On the fourth day, if all of them have tested negative, they will start training. Only after seven virus-free days will they be allowed in other areas of their hotel.
But it wasn’t all gloomy: “One good thing Covid had done for cricket is that you have extended squads. You can tick all the boxes when it comes to covering all the bases, whether it’s adding more batsmen, more seamers, or more spinners.” The latter are a case in point, what with Keshav Maharaj, Tabraiz Shamsi, George Linde and Prenelan Subrayen all in the squad. “I think it’s the first time we’re touring with four spinners. It’s a massive luxury for me as captain, and for the squad. We’ve not very familiar with the conditions, and I’d rather have too many players there than too few.”
Asked if his players would be vaccinated before they left, Elgar’s answer jarred: “I’m here to answer cricketing questions, please. If you can respect the forum as [being] for cricketing questions, I’d appreciate that.” And that despite the home side reporting last week that they had started to receive their jabs. It seems it was feared that the optics of mere players being among the fewer than 900,000 South Africans, in a total population of more than 58-million who had been inoculated by Friday, would lead to accusations of queue-jumping. But in a response delivered later on Saturday, CSA said: “Along with the other sporting bodies, our cricketers are a part of the Sisonke Trial programme [for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine] and have been vaccinated.”
It took the suits almost four hours to come up with that. Much has changed since South Africa last played a Test in the Caribbean. With CSA, not so much. Only when that happens for the good can South Africans expect better performances, consistently, from their teams.