Nagpur – November 2015. A date that was possibly earmarked by the Proteas as one of the most challenging Tests of the year. What they probably didn’t expect though was to be bundled out for an abject 79, having barely been in the contest for much of the Test match. This defeat meant that South Africa’s unbeaten run of nine years away from home was finally over.
This thrashing came as a surprise. After all, was the no.1 Test side: a team who over the last nine years had solidified themselves as exceptional travellers by picking up victories all around the world. After a closely contested series in Sri Lanka in 2006, the Proteas embarked on a remarkable run of form, achieving success in unlikely destinations. With a 1-0 win over Pakistan in 2007 and then an easy 2-0 triumph over Bangladesh in 2008, South Africa began to prove that the subcontinent was a fruitful destination for them to tour. Even the drawn series against India which followed proved that they were beginning to establish themselves as one of Test cricket’s most fearsome sides.
Perhaps the key highlights were the England and Australia series in 2008. Both being places that South Africa had failed to record series victories since re-admission, they would have been pleased emerging from these challenging venues with draws. What followed, however, were two epic series triumphs where South Africa thoroughly outplayed both their hosts. Winning the four-match series in England 2-1, led ably by their captain Graeme Smith, South Africa finished off the series with a game to spare.
It was a similar scenario in Australia where they again won 2-1 with only five minutes standing between them and a 2-0 unbeaten series. While the final Test will be recalled as one where Smith heroically came out to bat with a broken hand, this series also saw the establishment of JP Duminy as a key batsman with his 166 in the second Test in Melbourne being essential in helping South Africa to an early series triumph. 144 runs behind Australia with only two wickets in hand, he, along with Steyn (who amassed a gutsy 76) ensured South Africa would have a lead going into the second innings. Melbourne became the venue of their historic win and since then, Australian series have always been a source of joy for South Africa and their supporters.
After that, drawn series against India and Pakistan followed, both perhaps an insight into the difficulties of the subcontinent. Nagpur, in complete contrast to the recently concluded Test match, was their only victory in this run and provided South Africa with an innings and six run victory. While a tour of the West Indies was sandwiched between the two, this was an expected triumph as the gulf of quality between the two sides always meant that South Africa were going to beat them comprehensively. A New Zealand tour was also amongst the simpler of the challenges and again, it was England and Australia that served as their most profitable destinations; in 2012 these were the places where their proud no.1 ranking was established and cemented.
When South Africa completed a 2-0 series victory in England on the 20th of August 2012 and took over the Test mace, it seemed as though this powerful team was unstoppable. With the stability of Smith, Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla near the top of the order and their experienced triumvirate of fast bowlers Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander in their ranks, the South African side was one that was entirely settled. With players like Duminy and AB De Villiers also making up the middle order, there were no obvious flaws in this well-assembled team.
When Faf Du Plessis announced himself during the Australia tour later that very year during a gritty draw in Adelaide, South Africans could revel in the joy of another star being added to their ranks. After battling their way to two draws in Australia, their 309-run win in Perth showed that their determination and sheer brilliance would go a long way to them maintaining their recently acquired ranking.
Since then though, the retirements of essential cogs like Smith, Kallis and even to a lesser extent Alviro Petersen have seen South Africa stumble slightly. While they did attain a hard fought victory in Sri Lanka, the drawn series in Bangladesh and now the lost one in India shows that their once indomitable team has cracks that can be exploited. Recently emerging players like Stiaan Van Zyl and Dane Vilas haven’t set the scene alight and while they may improve in the upcoming series, finding replacements for their established internationals was always going to be a harrowing task.
Nine years of brilliance, sheer quality and dominance came to an end on Friday and while the end of an era will be bemoaned by South African supporters, it is time now to rebuild that dominance and try to reach those impossibly high levels once again. With so many exceptional talents still making up the team, there is no reason why South Africa shouldn’t look at this as a small setback rather than a crushing blow, and take heed of the lessons learnt from undoubtedly their most arduous Test tour in recent years.