TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
THE last South African test squad that went to New Zealand had a vice-captain who doesn’t seem to want to play in the longest format much these days.
It featured three giants – all of them since retired – a spinner who floundered in test whites but has been reborn as a short-format match-winner, and a player who has been banned for his involvement in match-fixing.
They are, respectively, AB de Villiers, Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher, Imran Tahir and Alviro Petersen.
All were part of the squad that claimed the series by winning in Hamilton between draws in Dunedin and Wellington.
Boucher didn’t know that the Wellington test, his 147th, would be his last because of a flying bail on a bright morning in Taunton less than four months later.
Did Kallis, who missed the Wellington match with a stiff neck, the first time injury had forced him out of a test in almost six years, know that he had only 14 tests left in the tank?
Did Smith suspect he would pull the plug on his career in the throes of a series against, of all people, Australia 18 tests later?
It was March 2012 and the cricket world was a long way from what it has become.
That sterling silver day at Lord’s when Smith held aloft the test mace, snatched from England, was still five months away.
South Africa’s meltdown at the 2011 World Cup was still too fresh a memory. What would happen in Auckland four years later, when the team were undone by their own suits with a place in the final theirs for the winning, was unimaginable.
If you had spoken of the Big Three to other cricketminded people they would have looked at you funny.
Like Robin Peterson did when he was asked about 2012 and all that.
“Umm … I’m going to need to work my way back to that tour,” Peterson said. “It feels like it was such a long time ago.”
In modern cricket terms, it is indeed a long time ago. South Africa have since played 42 tests, 99 one-day internationals and 51 T20s.
And here we go again. The squad that will play New Zealand in a T20 in Auckland on Friday and five ODIs starting in Hamilton on Sunday departed on Saturday.
Peterson was on that 2012 tour. Except that it seemed like he wasn’t. Named in all three squads, he nonetheless did not crack the nod to play in any of the three tests, three ODIs and three T20s.
Asked what had changed since those days, Peterson had the good grace not to reply that players picked in squads tended to get a game these days.
Instead, he said, “I don’t think South Africa have changed much – it’s just a change of personnel. But I think the style of cricket and the determination hasn’t changed.
“They’ve got a good leader in Faf du Plessis, who is quite gritty, in many ways like Graeme Smith was, and he has a few senior players in Hashim Amla, JP Duminy and Vernon Philander who are stepping up to the plate.”
Thing is, when a team’s personnel changes so do the personalities involved. And that can change almost everything.
South Africa still lean on their fast bowlers, fiery fielding and composite rather than individual batting performances.
It’s difficult to imagine them playing any other way.
But it’s also difficult to imagine, say, Boucher, subjecting himself to the kind of touchy-feely stuff Du Plessis’ men have indulged in these past few months.
“Sometimes you need to have those discussions and realign the focus,” Peterson said. “They seem to have got it right.”
They have. Now the next challenge awaits a long way down under.