RESCUING SOUTH AFRICAN CRICKET: IS THE PROTEA FIRE STILL ALIVE?
South Africa’s stamp on the cricketing world came to the fore under the legendary Hansie Cronje and reached new heights when the composed figurehead, Graeme Smith took over the reigns. As AB de Villiers continued the legacy and lead the side into the 2015 World Cup, South African cricket could still be considered in safe hands as Mr. 360 was a generational talent. In the summer Down Under, a dominant Proteas side were looking certain to enter the final before a Grant Elliott masterclass brought a halt to proceedings and broke South African hearts in a major tournament once again. To nobody’s surprise, South Africa were stellar throughout the competition and bowed out with fight and class after reaching the final four.
Things have gone downhill ever since to say the very least. The World Cup in 2019 was a nightmarish wake-up call that showcased the world the tall order ahead of South African cricket had ahead of itself to return back to the top, with Faf du Plessis looking hapless as skipper at times in a role that looked like a poisoned chalice at the time.
The spine of the team that made facing the South Africans a daunting prospect have bid farewell to the game; the retirements of AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, Jean-Paul Duminy, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander have proved to be a massive blow. A void left after the retirement of stalwarts such as Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith, which was later filled by the aforementioned core looks like it is getting bigger, day by day. The Kolpak ruling also took away promising talents such as Rilee Rossouw and Kyle Abbott from the side. What’s worse for South African cricket at present is that both Dale Steyn and Faf du Plessis, two veterans of the modern-day game are probably standing at the end of their glittering careers.
Now, with du Plessis stepping down as skipper and the captaincy under the belt of wicketkeeper-batsman Quinton de Kock, the Proteas need a total revamp.
For starters, the Test side could be built around Dean Elgar for at least the next two years, who is in his early 30s, but still the best and most experienced South African batsman in the longest format of the game. Partnered alongside Aiden Markram, the duo can build a solid foundation around which newer players such as Rassie van der Dussen and Zubayr Hamza can be bedded in gradually. The fact that de Kock himself is an explosive opener provides him with the opportunity of setting pace right at the top of the innings, but simultaneously striking a balance where he plays with an increased degree of responsibility, now that the 27-year old has taken on captaining duties. Having a determined and temperamentally solid player like Temba Bavuma at his disposal who admittedly is out of sorts at the moment could pay dividents as his talent and incredible fielding ability is never in doubt.
The bowling department, headed by the gifted Kagiso Rabada along with Keshav Maharaj can be clinical when the pair are at their lethal best. The likes of Lungi Ngidi and Chris Morris have also proven to be two bowlers who on their day, can torment any batting line-up on the globe. Anrich Nortje, Dane Paterson, Tabraiz Shamsi and Bjorn Fortuin are few of the names that have impressed in the South African circuit in recent times. This blend of seasoned talents and bright potential can slowly, but surely help the Proteas build a foundation for the future.
For the shorter formats of the game, de Kock himself can take charge and build a fighting team in both the 50-over and the 20-over format. The likes of Pieter Malan, Reeza Hendricks and Janneman Malan have come up the ranks, and can be relied on to give a fresher look to the team. Having David Miller in the middle-order along with Jon-Jon Smuts, who is again a handy all-rounder can be something that South Africa can look to capitalise on in the near future.
As far as the bowling is concerned, Rabada along with aforementioned bowlers can use the help of white ball specialists such as Beuran Hendricks and Andile Phehlukwayo to build a stronger core for a fearsome bowling attack; an attack which can take on any batting unit in any part of the world.
One thing that the South African side has been lacking for a long time now is composure and mental fortitude in pressure situations; ergo, their ‘chokers’ tag. To tackle this, Quinton de Kock will have to step up, being the head honcho. In tandem with head coach Mark Boucher, batting coach Jacques Kallis and bowling coach Charl Langeveldt, de Kock will have to make the players believe in the rebuilding process and hold the capability to defeat any team and win in any situation. The younger lot can do miracles with this type of mental conditioning, an aspect of sport that is often dangerously overlooked.
Another thing that has been plaguing the Proteas side is injuries. Regular injuries to Rabada, Ngidi and Nortje is a concern for both the captain and the management as well. This is something the management will have to take care of to go to war with the best teams in the world with all their ammunition available.
As much as the cricketing fraternity wants the South African side to return to their pinnacle, it is only up to them and the management to rebuild the side from scratch. In these tough times, Quinton de Kock will have to step up as the leader and rally his troops to keep the Protea fire burning.