Unlike in 2012, uncertainty hangs over SA in England

Sunday Times


NOT Mark Boucher’s eye being taken out by flying bail on the tour’s first day of play. Not Kevin Pietersen’s brattish cellphone etiquette. Not the arrogance — or was it racism — masquerading under a veil of critical questioning of Vernon Philander’s ability.

Nothing could derail South Africa’s mission in England in 2012.

It helped that the prize for winning that test series was not only shutting up some of the most annoying people in cricket — England would be unbeatable if they played as well as those focused on their performances over-think everything to an obsessive degree — but also the tangible expression of a golden generation’s epitomic moment in the shape of the test mace.

It helped, too, that South Africa had the best captain in cricket and the canniest coach, Graeme Smith and Gary Kirsten. And that they had Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn.

It didn’t hurt that Pietersen dragged his captain, Andrew Strauss, into a self-centred squabble that would have made England’s dressingroom an even more difficult place to be than in the middle facing Steyn and Philander.

Could South Africa not have won in 2012? Of course. But it’s difficult to fathom how.

Not so this time. South Africa again have the best captain in cricket, but as recently as Friday the uncertainty over Faf du Plessis* returning from the birth of his and his wife Imari’s first child in time to make it to Lord’s for the toss on Thursday remained unresolved.

The frame of mind of South Africa’s coach, Russell Domingo, back from visiting his mother after she met with a serious accident last week, is open to question. It is increasingly likely that Domingo is in his last series at the helm. He has been committed to the cause throughout his tenure, but neither he nor us would be human if we didn’t wonder if he could do it one more time with all the feeling required considering the circumstances.

There is no Kallis. There is no Steyn. There is Philander*, but in announcing the squad this week convenor Linda Zondi explained the selection of Andile Phehlukwayo by saying, “He and Chris Morris will fill this role in support of Vernon Philander.” So how much Philander, who has yet to prove his recovery from an ankle injury, is there really?

Add the internecine unhappiness over AB de Villiers’ part-time playing status and even the over-thinking English cricket obsessive will wonder how the home side won’t win.

South Africans, then, should thank their gods for Dean Elgar. And especially those who hanker for the days of Smith. For what is Elgar, with his direct approach and bugger the aesthetics, if not a foot shorter version of Smith? Sensibly, should Du Plessis not get back in time, Elgar will captain South Africa.

“It would be brilliant,” Elgar said at the prospect. “Just playing for your country at Lord’s is an honour, so to captain your national team there would be something really special.

“It would be disappointing not to have Faf there, but he’s got more important things to think about. His head’s in a different space.”

Elgar played nine of his 35 tests under Smith’s captaincy. What did he make of the comparison?

“I don’t know what kind of captain he was, but I think you’ve got to combine consistency with aggression,” Elgar said.

“I don’t think the gameplans will change much if I captain, just perhaps the odd tactical thing.

“But I know you need to captain with aggression.”

No such fog hangs over who might captain England, but little is known about how Joe Root might take to the job.

He will be at the England’s helm for the first time. We know what kind of captain Du Plessis is and we have a decent idea of how Elgar would go about things. What about Root?

“Someone like Nasser [Hussain] made a side that was very hard to beat and that is a great quality to have,” Root told Sky Sports.

“Similarly Michael Vaughan, at the other end of the spectrum, winning the Ashes playing very aggressive, attacking cricket.

“A balance of those two and someone like Mike Brearley … a culmination of all those would be ideal.”

Brearley’s career as the thinking cricketer’s test captain came and went during South Africa’s isolation.

But Smith, who was central to the downfalls of Hussain and Vaughan, could tell Du Plessis — or indeed Elgar — how to deal with Root. Somebody needs to.

* Faf du Plessis has since ruled himself out of the first test and Philander has been passed fit.

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