TELFORD VICE, Port Elizabeth
IF South Africa had known, at the end of 2015, that 2016 would pan out like it did they would have been hopeful that the light at the end of the tunnel was not an oncoming train.
Their 2015 was a year of living miserably. The World Cup ended in undeservedly sorry circumstances, they were hammered by India’s groundsmen as well as by their team, and they lost the first test in what would become a series defeat at home by England.
Add to the national team’s woes the match-fixing scandal that hung over the wider game like a bad smell and 2015 was a year to forget.
All told, South Africa played 41, won 22, lost 16 and drew three matches across all formats last year. In 2016 they played 35, won 20, lost 11, drew two.
This year they were thus marginally more successful, in percentage terms, and won six of the eight bilateral series in which they played.
But they disappointed in the World T20, which they exited in the first round, and in the one-day triangular in the Caribbean, where they failed to qualify for the final.
That trophy in a major limited overs tournament will have to remain mythical for a while yet, it seems.
Not that South Africa’s 2016 was going to be about what happened in the shorter formats.
Instead the focus was squarely on how they would respond to losing five of the eight tests they played in 2015-16, which saw them dwindle from No. 1 to No. 7 in the rankings.
They did so magnificently, earning an expected home series victory over New Zealand and swept to triumph in Australia before Steve Smith’s men knew what had hit them.
Most impressively, they accomplished almost all of that without major players AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn, who are still struggling to find their way back from elbow and shoulder injuries.
South Africa’s test success this year was built on Hashim Amla’s 661 runs at 50.84 going into the series against the Lankans, which for all the fuss being made about his form is a smidgen better than his career mark of 50.14, Quinton de Kock’s priceless gift of middle order runs, and further confirmation of Kagiso Rabada’s prodigious talent.
Vernon Philander’s quality comeback from an ankle injury, the growing presence of Kyle Abbott and the discovery of Keshav Maharaj’s aptitude for international cricket are further reasons for South Africans to set the bar higher for 2017.
And then there’s Faf du Plessis, who was finally appointed South Africa’s test captain – a job he should have had when Graeme Smith retired in March 2014.
“We’re a really happy team at the moment,” Du Plessis said before the start of the current series against Sri Lanka.
“That’s because of the results – we’ve played some really good cricket – but it’s also because of the stuff we’re doing behind the scenes, which is very good.
“All of us are more driven to make sure that we do the things the team require. For me that means stepping out of my comfort zone and making sure that whenever I feel like challenging someone I actually do it and not just think it in my head. That’s the same for all of us.
“It’s when you’re in that 50-50 moment of, ‘I’ll just let it slide’, and we actually don’t do that anymore.
“It’s a mind shift we’ve made collectively. It’s put us all in a better place for this team.”
Du Plessis was also in charge when South Africa thrashed Australia 5-0 in a one-day series at home, which to many will make him the gods’ gift to captaincy.
But let’s not forget that De Villiers was at the helm when South Africa fought back from a 2-0 deficit with a hattrick of wins to clinch the ODI rubber against England.
All good in the hood, you might say – even, partly at least, in that dark part of the hood were matchfixers lurk.
So far six players have admitted to transgressing the code of conduct and been banned for between 20 and two years.
It’s never good to be confronted with the truth that the game harbours the corrupt, but far rather that than not.