SA cricket: punch-drunk in Eng

Faf Du Plessis (Getty Images)
Faf Du Plessis (Getty Images)

Cape Town - If it is any consolation, the Proteas have played notably worse white-ball cricket in England than evidenced from them on those shores in recent weeks.

South Africa are firmly on the back foot on their all-formats 2017 tour, with successive 2-1 defeats in the one-day international and now Twenty20 series ... hardly aided by the pallid showing in the ICC Champions Trophy, also hosted by the United Kingdom as the meat in the sandwich, if you like.

But in the league of ineptitude, even the worrisome difficulties of recent weeks look relatively palatable when compared with the events in the five-match ODI series two major England tours back, in 2008.

On that occasion, the Proteas were almost unrelentingly dreadful in succumbing 4-0, a clean-sweep humiliation quite possibly only staved off by the abandonment soon after the start of the final clash in Cardiff (and even then, SA were already six for one with Herschelle Gibbs back in the hut as the heavens mercifully opened).

The nadir was probably game two at Trent Bridge, where Graeme Smith’s lacklustre charges were routed for 83 in only 23 overs, their second-lowest ODI total ever recorded, and England duly knocked off the runs without a wicket of their own falling.

However, there was an enormous amount of mitigation as the Proteas had, shortly before the ODI portion, completed a famous first Test series triumph on those shores since 1965, and appeared to have succumbed more to “long tour syndrome” and a metaphorical babbelas than anything else by the time the less critical, shorter-format stuff came along.

On this 2017 mission, which has included the considerable demands of the Champs Trophy as well, South Africa a little dangerously face the four-Test series last on the roster ... and they’re significantly under the cosh already, the opposite of how they tackled the final portion of that tour nine years ago.

It was always going to be a tough ask to wrestle back the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy anyway, considering England won 2-1 on last visit to our own shores, and playing the Tests after several weeks already on the road makes it even harder.

But the really alarming development, looking ahead to next Thursday’s start of the first five-dayer at Lord’s, is just how punch-drunk and inferior South African cricket generally has looked in England since roughly mid-May, if you add in the not-unimportant parallel tour by the SA ‘A’ side.

Indeed, England’s near-contemptuous little statement for Sunday’s third T20 international decider at Sophia Gardens, in resting captain Eoin Morgan just as the crunch came, only appeared to suggest: “we’re in little doubt that we’re better than you are, and expect to complete the business in our favour anyway”.

They duly did, and by a margin that was arguably more convincing than the 19-run one in final scoreboard terms.

The result meant that if, so far, you accumulate all bilateral results between England and SA (both senior and the various ‘A’ contests), then the English boast disturbingly clear-cut 7-2 bragging rights.

That comes through the respective 2-1 scorelines in the ODIs and T20s, as well as England Lions’ 2-0 triumph in the two unofficial ODIs (one washout) and lone unofficial Test.

Some of the English wins have been by hefty margins, too: they won the first top-tier ODI by 72 runs, the first T20 international by nine wickets, and the Lions’ triumphs have been embarrassingly one-sided as well.

Here’s a reminder of the fate that befell our “next best” crop of players: beaten by nine wickets in the first ‘ODI’ at Nottingham (with almost 10 overs to spare), by 144 runs in the second at Northampton, and by a gaping 257 runs in the ‘Test’ at Canterbury, when the white flag again went up meekly - 154 all out in the second dig, chasing a 412 target.

A pattern is rapidly developing that suggests we don’t have anything like the depth or quality of talent we may have assumed a few months back.

All of this makes it so vital that the Proteas, who named their 16-strong squad on Monday, make a positive start to the Test series at Lord’s - at least by not losing, with a possibly Faf du Plessis-shorn side? - to start to engineer some sort of mental turnaround.

Defeat at the cherished venue, where South Africa often play their most inspired cricket, could cause all sorts of psychological damage, marked by deeper self-doubt and a creeping threat of homesickness by some of their multi-format personnel ... even with three Tests still to negotiate.

On the plus side, they could hardly wish for a better place to try to spark a big tour claw-back.

Lord’s traditionally brings the best out of our Test players, as evidenced by a stellar post-isolation record: played five, won four (usually by pretty crushing margins, too), drawn one.

I’d suggest “normal service” there by the Proteas might be particularly vital on this occasion ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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