Fall of the Giants - The Obvious and The Expected

Fall of the Giants - The Obvious and The Expected
It has been a tough one-year in Test cricket for South Africa.
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It takes aeons to reach the top and just a few months of bad cricket to be pushed off the top spot, where even great teams fail to remain perched forever.

In the span of two months, South Africa lost two things extremely valuable – their decade long invincibility in away tours and their coveted number one Test ranking. India ensured the first, England affected the second.

But the true story lies somewhere underneath the loss of ranking or an away series. The true story revolves around losing their pillars of strength which weren’t probably as recognised for their fortitude as they should have been.

Now South Africa, in the aftermath of loss of legends like Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and Graeme Smith have a long road ahead and plenty of rebuilding to do.

Talk of AB de Villiers’ retirement and the loss of form of their batting stalwarts hasn’t augured well for South Africa. In the cricketing world though, South Africa’s fall from the apex wasn’t a surprise at all.

A dismal 2015

The Saffers had a dismal 2015, not just by their own lofty standards but also in general. Their only victory of 2015 came against West Indies in their first Test of the year.

Two matches, which South Africa were expected to win against Bangladesh in Bangladesh were washed out by the rain, but it was perceived by everyone that South Africa, in the first Test conceded a substantial 78 run first innings lead, having scored only 248.

The warning bells were there. What happened in India was a disaster, as South Africa lost three Tests, one of them being one of India’s biggest Test wins. The second Test between India and South Africa was washed out saving South Africa from the ignominy of a series whitewash.

How the giants fall from remaining undefeated in a series over 10 years to losing 3-0! But, the final nails were supplied by England, who won two out of the first three Tests beating South Africa on their home turf.

The number one ranking

South Africa had two trysts with the top. The first time, they managed 21 months from August 2012 to May 2014 before conceding the top spot in a tight tussle to Australia.

However, South Africa wrestled back the position and kept it from July 2014 to January 2016 for 18 months this time around. A look at the batting and bowling stats shows the decadence in the quality of cricket South Africa have played during their way down from the top.

Dip in batting numbers

If we consider the time period between 1st January 2015 and 19th January 2016, South Africa had not a single batsman who averaged over 50. De Villiers had the highest - 47.38.

Dean Elgar is the only other batsman with an average over 40 – 41.76. Amla averaged 35.50 in 10 Tests.

If we remove that one mammoth innings of 201 in the second Test against England, Amla’s average in the remaining nine Tests is 22, the worst form he has ever hit in his career. Faf du Plessis averaged 21 in 10 Tests during the same period.

On the other hand, in 2014, South Africa had as many as five batsmen with an average over 40 with de Villiers scoring at 63.63. Elgar just missed the cut with 39 in 7 Tests.

It is not such a bad idea to look at the batting numbers between 1st January 2012 and 1st January 2014. During those two years, as South Africa proved their mettle everywhere, they had three batsmen with averages over 60 – de Villiers scoring at 67.23, Amla scoring at 65.26 and du Plessis scoring at 60.15.

Smith and Kallis had respectable numbers of 49 and 48 respectively and Alviro Petersen and JP Duminy both had averages over 40.

No wonder then that during those two years, South Africa won 12 out of the 19 Tests they played, lost just one and drew six with 225 being their lowest score. That was some act to match!

The bowling numbers

South Africa traditionally relied on their all-rounders and their bowlers to win them matches although, Amla and de Villiers, with their consistency won games for their team too and du Plessis saved quite a few.

Between 2012 and 2014, South Africa had Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander picking 90 and 81 wickets in 19 and 17 Tests at 22.88 and 19.67 respectively.

In 2014, they had Steyn picking 39 wickets at 19.5 but the next lowest average for anyone with at least 5 games was Morne Morkel’s 26.46 with Philander’s average jumping to 41.6 explaining South Africa’s gradual loss of steam.

From the beginning of 2015, South Africa had Steyn and Tahir picking 17 and 14 wickets at 21, but they played five and four matches respectively.

Morkel, Simon Harmer, Kagiso Rabada and Dane Piedt had averages close to or over 30, explaining the loss of incision. Philander played four Tests and took five wickets at 45.20.

Team balance

With Smith and Kallis, South Africa had three advantages they don’t have now:

1. In Kallis they had an all-rounder who could crank up the speed, hold one end up and pick wickets. They virtually had 12 players in the team, not to mention the solidity Kallis provided at number three.

2. In Smith, they had a batsman who opened, performed under pressure and captained the team. Amla and de Villiers have both shown certain reluctance when it comes to leading the side.

3. South Africa had a solid top, but thanks to Smith and Petersen’s retirements, they are fragile now giving easy openings to opponents.

South Africa are undecided on who will keep wickets, with de Villiers complaining about the workload. Stiaan van Zyl hasn’t exactly grabbed his opportunities in the batting order, with Elgar being the only bright spot in 2015 at the top of the batting order.

Injury concerns

This is about the time when South Africa finally has to deal with the world, post Steyn and de Villiers – something that never crossed their minds in a decade.

Steyn is missing quite a few games due to injuries and like de Villiers, is on the wrong side of 30. Philander’s injury concerns were always known and although Morkel has improved by leaps and bounds and Rabada has shown great signs, South Africa know Steyn is irreplaceable.

Imran Tahir leaked too many runs in recent games and Piedt is only finding his feet in international cricket.

Conclusion

South Africa have plenty of talent with Rabada and Temba Bavuma being the most potent future options. However, transitions are painful and the staggered transition South Africa face is tricky.

By the time they deal with Kallis and Smith’s absence and find replacements, de Villiers and Amla will reach the end of their careers and those are big shoes to fill.

Duminy never really became the player he was supposed to become. While du Plessis will emerge stronger sooner than later South Africa need couple of good batsmen and couple of consistent bowlers to put their hands up.

At the moment, they don’t look like winning back the coveted number one ICC Test ranking spot anytime soon, as the revised table will put Australia and India ahead of them with India only enjoying a slender one rating point margin. For South Africa, while it lasted, it was beautiful!

© Cricket World 2016