Denial clouds debate as test series looms

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Cape Town

NOT for 20 years has a SA side gone into a test series in such a swirl of uncertainty. And against Bangladesh, no less.

The blood SA spilt, mentally, in Wednesday’s third one-day international at the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury stadium in Chittagong will be fresh on the ground when the first of two tests starts there on Tuesday.

Yes, SA should win this match and the second test in Dhaka easily – almost as easily as they should have won the second and third ODIs, which should have been won as easily as the two T20s and the first ODI were …

Bangladesh did not morph from minnows to menaces between the first and second ODIs. SA, who less than four months ago were a win away from reaching the World Cup final, did not suddenly become a poor side.

Disappointingly, too much of the discourse has stooped to talking up Bangladesh, who did not win the series nearly as much as SA lost it. Not for the first time in this country, we are in denial.

Bangladesh are a weak team who have learnt to paper over their limitations with pluck and discipline. SA, in ODIs two and three, played so far below themselves they should have had miners’ lamps on their helmets. Their disinterest in matches that meant nothing until the wrong team won was almost palpable, even from across the Indian Ocean.

Two of the reasons for the losses were the absence of AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn, who with Hashim Amla are this SA team’s giants.

But South Africans should get used to life after them. At 31, De Villiers, for instance, is a year younger than the others. But he has a history of injury and is on the verge of becoming a father. How much can he have left in the tank?

“He’s still got a lot to give,” Heino Kuhn, who has known De Villiers since their school days, began hopefully before scaling back: “At least another year or two; even three.

“He’s very passionate and committed to SA but maybe he won’t play all forms; maybe he will cut back in that sense.”

Former SA batsman Boeta Dippenaar also predicted a diminishing future for De Villiers: “I think we’ll probably see more seldom use of AB – there’s no doubt priorities change when you have kids.”

That future starts on Tuesday, when De Villiers will be with his pregnant wife, Danielle, rather than in Chittagong.

Steyn’s return will excite South Africans and Bangladeshis alike, the latter because the era’s premier fast bowler pinned his omission from the T20 and ODI series on not “wasting the few balls I have left in my career in a Bangladesh match”.

How Reeza Hendricks fares at the top of the order and whether Kagiso Rabada makes as big a splash as a test debutant as he did in his first ODI – when he took 6/16 – are the other questions South Africans will want answered.

Quinton de Kock should find playing himself back into form easier in the middle order, and Simon Harmer’s competitive juices will be in full flow considering the conditions.

But a far more important question will arch over all that, a question no cricket person likes to hear: who’s winning?

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