Proteas: The nightmare may last months

Faf du Plessis (AP)
Faf du Plessis (AP)

Cape Town - South Africa’s national men’s cricket team looks fragile and unstable enough in the short term, clinging by a thread already to any hopes of advancing to the last four of the 2019 World Cup.

But the general medium-term prognosis for the Proteas is just as worrying, as things stand.

The rising likelihood of a significantly failed CWC campaign will be followed by the threat of very little respite from their angst ... right now you would not stake your house on them even holding their own in the Test (and Twenty20) tour of India from mid-September.

Considering that a good number of their one-day international personnel should also be part of the major Subcontinent challenge - the three five-day clashes there will form part of the ICC’s new World Test Championship - a defiant finish to their World Cup, even if much of it may well be after the horse has bolted, will be vital to mustering a semblance of regenerated confidence for the India trek.

That is scheduled to be the Proteas’ first activity following CWC 2019, and there is a case for arguing that Cricket South Africa could do worse than hastily assemble some sort of spring mini-series against a weaker foe - like neighbours Zimbabwe? - to help the process of the players getting their groove back, as it were, if it is deemed necessary in the aftermath of the World Cup.

Then again, a period of head-clearing and down time from the exhausting cricketing treadmill might instead be of better value for several of South Africa’s all-formats playing assets, as “off-seasons” are less and less generous (or even sometimes virtually non-existent) these days.

Should they not crack the CWC semi-finals, the national players will have time off from July 6 (their closing round-robin fixture against Australia at Old Trafford) - so around two months in which to place more of a focus on relaxation and out-of-competition conditioning.

But the pressures back home from a bitingly critical, disappointed public will lurk in the event of a poor campaign and the associated likelihood of damage to morale in the camp.

It is against that backdrop that a major tour of India seems rather more like a further step toward purgatory than some sort of healing, restorative expedition.

Considering that a multi-format home summer against England then looms, the Proteas will really have gone full circle (a dangerous one, too) over the space of some four years, as that is exactly how the order of business had taken place in 2016/17: respective Test series against India away and the English at home.

That last series in India is widely considered -- with some justification -- to have represented the start of South Africa getting a sustained bout of the batting yips, if you like, from which they have never satisfactorily recovered.

Most of the four Tests played on debatable, lottery-like dustbowls, the Proteas lurched to a 0-3 hiding, marked by several mass collapses at the crease against India’s wily spinners.

That skittishness with the blade then transferred into the home series against England, where the host nation were beaten 2-1, also in a four-Test roster: if anything, the more recent coaching regime of Ottis Gibson as head and Dale Benkenstein as the batting specialist has only seen an aggravation of the trend.

Considering that India also firmly back their spicy pace attack these days, they will feel already, you can be pretty sure, that they have all bases covered for another rollicking triumph over South Africa in 2019/20.

That the five-dayers will be played in the relative “backwaters” of Visakhapatnam, Ranchi and Pune – SA have never previously played a Test in any of those centres - will be of no special comfort.

Especially bearing in mind that the Proteas’ last Test series produced a post-isolation nadir, a 0-2 home shocker at the hands of essentially modest Sri Lanka last season, a rousing start for them to the ICC’s new Test “baby” seems so unlikely, even conceding that we are still a few months out.

To compound things, there is the million-dollar question of just how well-staffed South Africa will be in suitably battle-hardened personnel by then.

For one thing, Gibson is very likely to have been replaced by a new head coach, who may well come from the risky, currently fairly hollow landscape that is the domestic franchise scene with its often sponsor-less, ill-attended competitions.

But wherever a new national team mentor may come from, India away is about as acid a start-out as it gets.

And while there are a few undoubtedly talented greenhorns on the local circuit not too far away from the potential for sustained international exposure, just how advisable would it be to blood them into combat against India in their daunting own backyards? (Allow me the indulgence of providing an immediate answer: not very.)

A deepening problem is that several suitably crusty Proteas campaigners who should ordinarily be considered musts for such a challenge are riddled with varying drawbacks.

The future of pace ace Dale Steyn (prominent in abrasive Indian conditions before, don’t forget) is shrouded in great renewed doubt following his no-play exit from the World Cup ... even if an old ally of his, the former SA bowling coach Vincent Barnes, has come out in support of the legend not yet throwing in the towel.

What of Hashim Amla, for so long a batting bedrock figure - he had an outrageously sublime tour of India back in 2010 - but labouring so painfully at virtually all levels for at least the last year or 18 months?

It is not yet clear whether the now 36-year-old will remain available for the Proteas after the World Cup, which he has begun on the back foot, like so many colleagues, in personal performance terms.

Heaven forbid, too, that captain and another proven cross-formats batting figure Faf du Plessis succumbs to any “gatvol” factor if the World Cup goes even more acutely pear-shaped and steps down from all SA service: something that is not impossible in this age of lucrative distractions for players nearing the end of their careers.

Stay well strapped, then: the national team’s present turbulence may not be close to over.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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