TELFORD VICE in Auckland
CAN it be only a year ago that South Africa limped home from their cursed place, India, having gone nowhere quickly in the group stage of the World T20? It can. It is.
Have just nine months past since they looked like they couldn’t hold their rum punch in the triangular series in the Caribbean? Yes.
Those disappointments followed India’s tainted victory in a test series there – if the pitches in Mohali and Nagpur weren’t cheating, nothing is – and a demoralising home defeat by England, who deserved their success.
Perhaps South Africa could only go up from there, but the way they recovered told of a team who remembered who and what they are.
They’ve done so despite having changed their test captain twice, and having to make do without AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel for much of 2016-17.
We’ve seen 5-0 thrashings of Australia and Sri Lanka in one-day series and test series wins over New Zealand, twice, Australia and the Lankans.
We’ve seen players step into breaches that seemed unbreachable.
We’ve seen heart and soul and gees.
We’ve seen a team that deserves to be called South Africa.
“Its been extraordinary to lift ourselves up from a real challenge last year; it’s been a real team effort,” Faf du Plessis said after South Africa’s campaign ended with a 1-0 test series victory in New Zealand.
Du Plessis’ contribution to all that, and more, cannot be overstated. The man who should have been made test captain when Graeme Smith quit two years ago is showing why. Clearly, he knows what he’s doing. Just as clearly, he enjoys the job.
“I can only captain as well as the guys do on the field,” Du Plessis said.
“For me, it’s about always trying to challenge the guys to be better.”
And that’s not going unnoticed.
“He’s done a great job, not just through his leadership but also with the bat,” Russell Domingo said.
“He walks the walk – he demands a lot from his players but he’s willing to go out there and live up to the demands that he places on the team.”
But, as Du Plessis said, South Africa are “not sitting back … and thinking everything is sunshine and roses”.
They can’t, not with a Champions Trophy and a tour to England looming – and with a batting unit that has had to battle its way back from the brink too often.
“We’ve got some quality in our batting line-up but it’s a matter of getting them confident and getting them playing well again,” Domingo said.
“All of the batsmen have put in wonderful performances over the last couple of years.
“We need to get them back into that space.”
Du Plessis bemoaned “the lack of hundreds, the lack of good starts”.
“We are playing with our backs against the wall most of the time, and that’s a real concern for me,” he said.
The fourth day of the third test in Hamilton, when South Africa lost their first five wickets 46 runs apart, was a case in point.
“The two hours we had there was really soft,” Du Plessis said. “There were a few tired bodies (who had spent almost 12 hours in the field during New Zealand’s first innings) but never can that be an excuse.
“We need to be really strong in those moments because we knew that there was a test series on the line.
“All the dismissals were soft; not one of them was from an extraordinary ball.”
The season’s steady exceptions have been Du Plessis himself and Quinton de Kock, who between them scored a third of all the runs South Africa made across all formats.
But questions must be asked over the future of JP Duminy and even the great Hashim Amla, both of whom spent much the campaign playing on reputation.
Bowling? Two words: Keshav Maharaj. Go you good thing.