TELFORD VICE, Johannesburg
Around two years ago, SA were preparing to confirm their peerlessness by unseating England as test cricket’s No. 1 team. Graeme Smith captained and Gary Kirsten coached what the world already knew was the best XI in the game, which included the finest allrounder of the age in Jacques Kallis. But the mace would make it official.
On a bright and beautiful evening at Lord’s, the home of the snobs of cricket, the mace became SA’s. Beer and bravado flowed in the shiny, happy celebration. Surely, nothing could go wrong …
A year later, Kirsten exited after SA’s underwhelming Champions Trophy campaign. At Christmas, Kallis called it a test career. Less than three months after that, Smith was done with international cricket.
On Sunday, the bulk of a SA squad that in significant as well as subtle ways is unrecognisable from the side that ruled the world just two years ago boarded a flight to Sri Lanka. As they did so, the sharp smell of jet fuel should have been laced with the even sharper recognition that they are a team at the start of a season of transition.
Their first challenge will be to take the edge off South Africans’ memories of the 4-1 thrashing they took in their one-day series in Sri Lanka last July. They will have three matches in the format, starting in Colombo next Sunday, to do so. Then SA will play two tests in a country where they last won a series in 1993.
“They are up against it, not just because Sri Lanka is a tough place to tour but because there has been a big shift in the team’s dynamics,” former SA batsman Boeta Dippenaar said.
“We like to be patriotic and say that we can get back to No. 1, but the reality is that no-one stays at the top forever. We saw that with West Indies in the 1980s and recently we saw it with Australia, although Australia’s rebound was a lot quicker than expected because their structures are strong.”
And SA’s, Dippenaar said, are not what they used to be.
“The Proteas’ success was an effect of what was happening in franchise cricket eight or nine years ago. It was a very strong system. I remember playing franchise cricket against Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. You don’t see that anymore. The truth of the matter is that we are now in a rebuilding phase.”
This uncertainty has hit SA as they should be tightening the nuts and bolts on their bid to win the World Cup in Australasia in February and March. If they do not come home with the trophy, the fact that the stronger squads SA have sent to the tournament in the past returned empty-handed will not be remembered. Instead, the class of 2015’s failure will simply be added to the list.
For that not to happen, SA would need to make rapid progress in the more than 20 ODIs they will play before the World Cup.
“Our biggest challenge is the psyche of coaching in this country,” Dippenaar said. “It is a schoolmaster-schoolboy interaction. You see that when the players have to make decisions on the field and they are found wanting.
“If we want to break the cycle of being called chokers we’re going to have to produce players who can think on their feet.”
Two years ago, SA had those players and coaches in abundance. Some of them are no longer around, but many remain. Surely, even in a season of transition, not everything can go wrong.