South Africa’s Test record in the 21st century can be split into two distinct sets – Tests involving Graeme Smith and the ones without him. In the 116 matches involving Smith, the Proteas won 60 and lost 29, the wins double that of the number of losses. Without him, they played 81 Tests, winning 37 and losing 28. Notably, since his retirement, the Proteas have lost 18 and won 24 Tests.
With South African cricket in turmoil over strained relations between the CSA board and players association, it was no surprise that the Proteas chose to go back to their core group from the Smith regime. While Mark Boucher assumed head coach responsibilities, Smith himself was made team director and Jacques Kallis took over as batting consultant. After the dreaded Indian tour from which they returned to hues and cries from home fans, South African cricket dwindled to further lows with the players threatening to go on strike.
Bringing calm to the storm was priority and South Africa did step one right by bringing in their old warhorses to lift them out of the abyss. As the first squad announcement in the new regime was made, the first question that popped into most heads was why the six new names announced were all around their thirties.
All of Rassie van der Dussen, Dwaine Pretorius, Rudi Second, Pieter Malan and Dane Paterson are 30 while Beuran Hendricks is 29. It raised queries about where South Africa’s next generation of players were. The likes of Kyle Verreynne, the 22-year old Cobras keeper-batsman, 21-year old Wiaan Mulder, injured now, but often hailed as the next Kallis, Warriors opener Edward Moore are all notable absentees from the younger group of talents.
At first glance, it seems stupid to forget grooming the next line of players. But rewind the last few shambolic months in South African cricket, and you get that the new order – the Smith reign ushering in the golden generation of South African cricketers in support staff roles – is only trying to stabilize cricket in the country before giving it wings to take off. After the recent appointments of Smith, Boucher and Kallis, skipper Faf du Plessis had openly stated about the relief the new men bring to the players an d cricket in South Africa as such.
“Where we are as cricketers in South Africa is the most optimistic we have been in a while,” du Plessis said. “There were a lot of challenges the last six months. We hadn’t played our best cricket as a team but there had been a lot of stuff happening off the field. For me, that’s the most promising thing where we are right now. We are not as prepared as we would have liked to be as a Test team but I think for now, what’s more important is the things that have changed in the last two weeks. Cricketers in SA and the public have got a lot of optimism about the team. It was really important that we focused on getting the right people in the right places and I feel that has happened.”
The optimism primarily stems from the fact that this group of cricketers-turned-administrators and coaches are the best men in South Africa to lead cricket in the country in the right direction. The first evidence to that perhaps came two days prior to the Boxing Day Test when Rassie van der Dussen and Dwaine Pretorius were confirmed as certain debutants. Now, neither van der Dussen nor Pretorius are the kind of cricketers you would expect to walk in and do what AB de Villiers or Lance Klusener did.
What they do bring, though, is outright consistency as they have shown in limited-overs cricket – the willingness to grind hard and fight it out, a quality that South Africa need from their cricketers right now to stabilize their cricket after the chaos. Both newbies are experienced domestic players with good first-class records. Neither stand out remarkably with their numbers, but they bring a certain amount of assurance that the Proteas missed in the last one year.
Throwing the young guns to the deep end may not be a feasible move at this point for South African cricket and this regime has recognized that before their first series. Spoon-feeding at this stage may not be feasible and Kallis said as much when he spoke about the need for batsmen to adjust to game situations.
“I’m trying to get a relationship with the players and see how they are thinking and trying to give them game plans,” Kallis said a week back. “I’m trying to give the guys options and ideas and make them realise you can’t bat the same way every time you walk out to bat, You have to adapt your game. I want to get them to know their game plan a lot better so they can try and adapt while they are batting. It’s not the spoon-feeding of coaching, it’s trying to educate themselves so they can educate themselves while they are out in the middle. It’s a lot of off-the-field stuff, the mind stuff, along with the technical stuff.”
In players like Pretorius and van der Dussen, South Africa have domestic veterans who are fully aware of what it takes to win matches in these conditions. Each of the six new players in the squad reek of this very quality – a non-flashy, unassuming demeanor is forever associated with these names. It is perhaps the one primary quality that South African cricket needs now.