Cape Town – In just under a week’s time, it may be clearly evident that the Proteas’ Test-team class of 2014 is already the near-equal of predecessors in the glowing later years of Graeme Smith’s marathon captaincy spell for toughness and resilience.
Either beating Sri Lanka in the second Test – starting in Colombo on Thursday, 06:30 SA time – for a clean sweep or at least comfortably securing a draw and thus the series win anyway, will clearly demonstrate to the rest of the world that South Africa have regrouped extraordinarily well after surrendering several steely characters in the last year or so.
Smith, Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher ... these were uncompromising, “fulcrum” Test players for so long, and then suddenly, like dominoes tumbling, they were gone in pretty quick succession and for varying, though largely age-related reasons.
If anyone, with good initial reason, thought it was going to be difficult to replace them both for statistical excellence and their combative qualities, then a Sri Lankan tour in the slap-bang in the SA winter with some callow faces in the ranks was likely to prove a rather uncomfortable school of hard knocks, and confirmation of the theory.
Look how England, by contrast, have tumbled in fortunes since shedding once-staple surnames like Strauss, Trott and Pietersen, exposing a fairly soft underbelly for the time being.
Instead the Proteas -- relative rookies and all – have thus far surpassed expectations in ‘Lanka (traditionally not always their field of dreams), by first pinching the one-day series against the odds and now going into the last Test aiming to seal those honours too with a decisive kill.
Be sure of one thing: if the home team bounces back with a win at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground, it will greatly temper that hitherto satisfying state of affairs.
I hate to say it – cough, splutter – but those who love every chance to brand South Africa “chokers” will be out in gleeful force anew and the entire tour will be downgraded from outstanding to just decent (1-1 in the Tests would still not be a bad result, remember).
But if Hashim Amla’s team, many of whom straddle both forms of the game, return victorious on each front, the trip will deserve to go down as pretty close to, say, the historic Australia 2008/09 safari for its fabulous outcomes.
That was when, under Smith’s command, the Proteas won the Test series 2-1 against expectation (SA’s maiden triumph Down Under) and then under Johan Botha’s leadership rubbed salt into Aussie wounds by claiming the ODIs 4-1.
On this latest venture, a “double whammy” seemed highly unlikely upfront, particularly given the anticipated vulnerability on the Test terrain as South Africa painstakingly acclimatised to the absence of the aforementioned trio of legends.
But it is now just a tantalising five days or so away, assuming the Proteas hold their nerve suitably in Colombo.
The significance of knocking over Sri Lanka in their own habitat right now, if it happens, should not be under-emphasised.
I was reminded of that by reading a piece by Simon Hughes, the English television and print media critic and former Middlesex seamer who played for Northern Transvaal in the old Currie Cup days, in the latest (August) issue of The Cricketer magazine from the UK.
Writing after the ‘Lankans had upset England 1-0 away in a similarly two-Test series very recently, Hughes reminded of their deceptively hard edge: “(Sri Lankans) seem the nicest people in the world ... put a cricket bat or ball in their hands, however, and they experience a vivid transformation.
“They are ferociously competitive and hard as nails. They do anything within the laws of the game to try and win ... they make the Australians look like koala bears.
“Their cricket is imaginative and uncompromising: (captain) Angelo Mathews encapsulates that. He is a pleasant bloke to meet but he’s a smiling assassin.”
If South Africa manage to add the Test series in Sri Lanka to their ODI triumph, where does that leave them, then?
Pretty well placed in the “hard edge” department, you’ve got
to think ...
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