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From underdogs to series whitewashers – South Africa’s remarkable turnaround in a series for the ages

by Rohit Sankar 6 minute read

Few fancied South Africa’s chances going into the Test and ODI series against India, and after a dismal Boxing Day Test, the script seemed set. But things have turned around quite spectacularly, writes Rohit Sankar.

The light was fading at SuperSport Park on day four of the first Test when we witnessed a dismissal that appeared to signal South Africa’s likely fate in the series. Rassie van der Dussen shouldered arms to a length delivery outside off stump from Jasprit Bumrah and watched in agony as the ball curved back in to rattle the stumps. 74-3. Chasing 305.

It wasn’t a bad leave by any means. Van der Dussen had spent 64 balls at the crease, keeping the Indian bowlers at bay. This one was, quite simply put, unplayable. The choice of shot said so.

This Indian fast bowling unit are fine-tuned to deliver those sort of deliveries – across all kinds of surfaces. Ask Joe Root or Marnus Labuschagne. Ask Aiden Markram, who received a corker from Mohammed Shami in the first innings of that Test, a psychological blow from which he never really recovered, so much so that his home Test average dropped four runs in the series.

A loss by 113 runs was followed by deep-rooted questions over the quality of South Africa’s bowling attack, which failed to gather any kind of rhythm in the first innings, and the meek batting line-up, which was reduced to four down before three figures in both innings.

Roll forward a few weeks and the tables have been completely turned. South Africa have won five matches on the bounce. They completed a 2-1 Test series win, are genuine candidates to reach the World Test Championship final and, more shockingly, sealed an ODI series whitewash. How did South Africa turn it all around, especially with so much happening off the field? The SJN’s final report provided scything revelations in regards to their head coach Mark Boucher and director of cricket Graeme Smith. As though that distraction wasn’t enough, their star batter and first-choice wicketkeeper called time on Test cricket after the first Test.

It’s hard to fathom a turnaround as exceptional as this — to lift the drooping shoulders amidst the doom and gloom after Centurion to spark a comeback as good as that at Johannesburg and thereafter — without inspiration. In Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma, South Africa had just that, inspiring leaders who led from the front and put the team in the driving seat.

“I went up to KG [Rabada] and I said to him, ‘You are an immensely respected cricketer within our group and at the moment I don’t think you are conducting yourself extremely well’,” Dean Elgar said after the second Test, explaining his message to his leading quick after the first Test. Rabada’s brilliant second-innings spell at the Wanderers went on to turn around the series. “I know what KG is capable of. When KG’s got his tail up, there’s no better bowler than him.”

For South Africa to turn up in the Test series, they needed two solid leaders from the batting and bowling departments. Elgar’s words fired up Rabada and the skipper himself turned up too – in armour, with his shield blocking out the ball and the noise from elsewhere too. He didn’t leave it to the rest, he walked them through it, hand-held the middle order to a run chase in the second Test few believed South Africa would complete against the India attack.

A few days later, his team did it again. This time he couldn’t lead them till the end, but his unflinching focus inspired others to emulate him. Keegan Petersen, in just his second Test series, took charge and nearly saw South Africa home. When he fell, other heroes emerged – van der Dussen and Bavuma once again silenced the vividly excited Indians after the decibels rose.

One-nil down and more importantly, emotionally drained, Elgar’s grit and the challenge he sent out to his teammates resulted in a Test series worth remembering for ages. “I threw down the challenge after the first game and the guys responded brilliantly,” Elgar said after the Test series win. ” [I] laid down challenges to senior players as well, great to see them take it on board and deliver. Would like to think I gave us the best message for us to go out and perform. As a close group, we’ve been hurting a little bit and it’s something for us to feed off. We played as a unit, if you can do that, if you have guys moving away, it’s challenge to pull them in.”

If it was Elgar in the Tests, it was Bavuma in the ODIs. His remarkable composure and mindful words during the T20 World Cup last year, when South Africa’s cricket hit a low point after Quinton de Kock refused to take a knee, had shown his value off the field. In this series, Bavuma took his fight onto it. The ODI unit had lost to Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, drawn a series in Ireland and lost to Pakistan at home – all in 2021.

By all means, this was a team in transition, still finding its feet under a new captain and sorting through the very many issues off the field. The sluggish surface at Paarl was expected to play right into India’s hands. Instead it proved to be the strongest hint towards South Africa’s template building up to the 2023 ODI World Cup in India.

A conscious, strong choice to play Keshav Maharaj alongside Tabraiz Shamsi and use Aiden Markram with the ball more often in the ODI set-up reaped rewards as the spinners made telling breakthroughs. In Bavuma, South Africa found the glue to their ODI batting unit – his ton in the first ODI came from the team struggling at 68-3 and helped van der Dussen go on the offensive and complete his own hundred.

With Bavuma and van der Dussen at the centre, de Kock-Malan on one side and Markram-Miller on the other, South Africa built a fortress which gave them a shield against spin and power against pace. By the final ODI in the series, the pace attack did not even need Lungi Ngidi (remember they already did not have two first-choice quicks in Anrich Nortje and Rabada).

The template for South Africa to conquer challenges in India in 2023 seems set. It’ll be a huge challenge, particularly given South Africa’s history with World Cups, but would you put it beyond them after this?

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