Is de Villiers captaining a sinking ship?
The Wanderers wept. The grey clouds that were glued to the sky all day refused to join in but spitefully hung around to provide the perfect plate for England attack’s to feast off. With the topping above and trimmings from a pitch snaked with cracks below, they feasted on a vulnerable line-up ripe for the picking.
South Africa are now, officially, no longer the No. 1 Test team although it had only felt like a notional tag for a few months. The team that really began the malaise, India, have now taken their place – although the rankings are a curious beast and likely to remain considerably fluid. There are a few sides jostling for the top berth, what is certain is that South Africa no longer demand it. They are a side infected by insecurities that stem from decisions taken beyond the boundary and which have now bled onto the Bullring.
The wound was opened where it was thought to have healed. Dean Elgar has batted with commendable resilience but was foxed by a slightly wider line from Stuart Broad, flirted with it and found the edge. The dismissal was a teaser of what was to come from a man who seems to be able to sniff when a moment is there to be seized, but when it happened it was just a symptom of a long-standing South African issue around their top-two.
That is what the Wanderers’ chat would have been about. In the 11 innings before this one that Elgar and Stiaan van Zyl have opened together, van Zyl has been the first to fall. Understandably, that has put extra pressure on Elgar and understandably, there would come a day when Elgar would succumb to that.
It was in Broad’s next over, when he got another delivery to move away late and lured van Zyl into an uncertain prod that the signs of something special showed. James Anderson put the chance down but van Zyl was rightly rattled. He has been playing to save his Test career since the start of the series, is low on confidence and that shot would only have unsettled him. The Wanderers did not sense it, the fans went on watching, but Alastair Cook did.
He kept Broad on even though his spell was already five overs long, albeit interrupted by lunch. Yesterday, AB de Villiers did not do the same thing with Hardus Viljoen and Kagiso Rabada. If de Villiers had dreamed he’d get a result like the one Cook did, he may have decided differently but hindsight applies to so much of what South Africa have done all week.
Would the change in captaincy be a catalyst for a cure? Had the corner be turned? No and yes. The change in captaincy appears to have added to the confusion coursing through South African veins and the corner was turned so sharply that South Africa capsized. They have now clearly reached the end of an era and they seem shellshocked by the speed at which it has taken place. Broad’s spell served to underline that.
He felled the opposition captain with the best delivery of the day, one that jagged back sharply and took the inside-edge to remove de Villiers for a duck. The Wanderers was worried. In the next over, Hashim Amla, whose double hundred at Newlands promised so much, was brilliantly caught at short leg off the face of the bat and the Wanderers was very, very worried.
Even balls that could be dealt with, and Amla had actually played a fine stroke off the delivery that dismissed him, were getting wickets. And there were not many of those. Broad was tight around off stump, made it difficult for batsmen to decide whether to play or leave and found seam movement. At the other end, first Anderson and then Ben Stokes supported Broad by giving away little. South Africa were caged in.
When Temba Bavuma gloved one onto his stumps, the series was quickly slipping away. The Wanderers wished it wasn’t so.
There was an audible irritation with what they were seeing. Most of the sell-out crowd had ignored the weather warning for rain through the day and turned up to watch. Most of them were South Africans. Among the 19,338 supporters were a group calling themselves AB’s Babies, the Johannesburg version of Hashim’s Army. Instead of beards, they wore adult diapers and baby carriers with dolls. They had a printed hymn sheet and their theme song, with punchline, “We love you AB,” was sung to the tune of “Can’t take my eyes off of you.” Seems Broad felt the same way about the South Africans.
At 40 for 5, Faf du Plessis could see the funny side of all that when he dabbed a ball down beside him and picked it up to return to Broad only to be snarled at. Broad clearly did not want to share his toys and du Plessis was happy to laugh it off. But not for long.
Seven balls later, South Africa were freed of Broad but not their troubles. Dane Vilas went and with South Africa 45 for 6 and Chris Morris walking to the middle, their own Wanderers turned on them. The loudspeakers blasted what would otherwise have been words of encouragement. A song titled, We could be heroes which doesn’t sound too bad except that it was the exact same song which played in the final over of the World Cup semi-final, a ball before Grant Elliott hit the six that shattered South Africa’s dreams. The time for heroes had run out.
The chance for that was in the first innings, where all South Africa’s batsmen got starts but none of them went on as Joe Root did. Even though South Africa clawed their way over 300, they always looked as though they were merely clinging on rather than controlling things the way they used to. They have looked that way throughout the series and Broad has been the cause of most of it. In Durban, he produced a searing spell on the second day and in Johannesburg, he made the Wanderers crowd watch their Proteas wilt.
In the end, there was a strange sense that things among South Africans were not as bad as they seemed. The team offered very few explanations for their performance. Perhaps the realities of a second successive series loss, which has not happened to South Africa in a decade since they were beaten home and away by Australia in 2006, and the extension of their longest winless streak which has now stretched to nine matches has not sunk in. It certainly hasn’t among the supporters. The brass band played Hope Joanna as they led the crowd out of the ground but afterwards, in silence, the Wanderers wept.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo