Cape Town – It’s a long way up the road, in terms of the ever-congested cricket calendar … yet also so close, really.
The currently cock-a-hoop Proteas -- their spirits rightly, barely dimmed by defeat in the Adelaide dead-rubber Test – have several other significant tasks to fulfil before they next run into Australia at Test level, in February 2018.
Further five-day obligations, in South Africa’s now confident bid to climb back to No 1, are scheduled first, and in this order, against Sri Lanka (home), New Zealand (away), England (away), Bangladesh (home), Sri Lanka (home) and India (home).
But that next combat with the Baggy Greens is nevertheless not much more than a year away, and importantly earmarked as the first four-Test post-isolation series between the great rivals, as well as being on South African soil.
All bilateral series since 1992 have been curtailed to a maximum of three encounters, so finally we get to see something much closer to the traditional examination of endurance which major Test series are meant to be.
The fact that it will be here is just as significant: for all the magnificence of their almost unthinkable feat of beating Australia away three times in a row (twice under Graeme Smith, now Faf du Plessis), the Proteas conspicuously still haven’t ticked the box for home triumph over the Aussies in seven modern-era series attempts stretching back to 1993/94.
There have been two drawn series and, gallingly, five losses in that period.
Australia are also the only nation South Africa have not yet beaten in a series on our turf since re-admission, so there can be little doubt that coach Russell Domingo and company will, already, quietly be training their thoughts to changing all that in some 15 months’ time.
A poignant reminder of the last home series triumph against the Aussies, the famous 4-0 sweep of 1969/70, came during the Adelaide pink-ball Test -- won by seven wickets by the hosts for a strictly consolation success – when news came through that SA participant Trevor Goddard had passed away at 85.
For the moment, Du Plessis’s men have every right to bask in the 2-1 away series glory, mindful that they genuinely smashed the Australians at Perth and Hobart before the dead-rubber fixture proved a near-token bridge too far.
The Proteas are regrouping at a pleasing rate of knots after their much-publicised trough period, to the extent that a few “pleasant” selection dilemmas face their brains trust for the visit of the Lankans for three Tests over the peak festive season.
Of course the big conundrum is who to ditch in the batting order when regular captain AB de Villiers returns as scheduled from injury for the series.
Before the Adelaide Oval clash, opener Stephen Cook was probably the favourite to go, but then he came back to light in commendable fashion with a defiant personal sequence of 40 and 104 to help delay the defeat.
He averages a mere fraction under 40 after six Test matches in total, which is a sign of considerable promise whatever people like Ian Chappell may say about a certain quirky fallibility in his technique – let’s not forget that Cook knows his own game backwards after some 15 or 16 years at first-class level.
A gut feel is that the Proteas will wish not to tamper with the Cook-Dean Elgar “specialist” firm at the top of the order yet, which could leave JP Duminy, despite his major knock in the first Test at the WACA, most vulnerable to making way for De Villiers.
Then again, his supplementary spin could come in handy at St George’s Park from Boxing Day, so it really is a tricky issue.
Given the healthy split of match-influencing contributions by the Proteas players Down Under – the consistent Vernon Philander must have earned player-of the-series by a whisker – South Africa are in a good place going forward in the five-day landscape.
On the fast bowling front, the proven, highly experienced Morne Morkel cannot yet force his way back into the XI – what a great “next cab off the rank” to have at a time of sudden need – whilst a tight tussle is also developing between rookie spinners Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi for the main tweaking berth.
Naturally the Proteas will not wish to focus too soon on the next time they go into Test battle with the Australians; the ideal would be to have forced themselves back to the top of the global pile by the time that series comes around late next summer.
But the current group of players will also hardly be unaware of the overdue nature of beating the Baggy Greens before the South African public.
Mindful of happy events of the last few weeks, their appetites for that are only likely to increase in the interim …
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