Faf du Plessis suffered a form dip during the Test series but hopes to battle back in the ODIs © AFP
It’s just South Africa’s luck that, at a time when fifty-over cricket is the format they are feeling most comfortable in, there’s no major tournament on the horizon. The next World Cup is so far away that planning for it seems silly and even the Champions Trophy is too far in the future for their current performances to have any real impact. So what’s to play for in the upcoming five-match rubber against England?
Pride, you may guess. Pride, the team will say. But pride does not quite describe the point South African cricket needs to make over the next two weeks. Even though theirs is wounded, there is something deeper than pride at stake. There’s public confidence that needs to be restored.
The results of the last few months have shaken South African cricket. The Test side went from being the best in the world to their worst since readmission after a streak of nine matches without a win. They finished their season with victory in Centurion but their dramatic slide left many shellshocked, especially when they peered deeper into the problem.
South Africa’s A side have been unable to compete with the visiting English, either in first-class or 50-over cricket. They have been so thoroughly outplayed that a spotlight has been cast on the domestic system and whether it is adequately preparing players for the step up. A glance at the age-group results is even less encouraging. South Africa’s Under-19 team were the defending champions going into the World Cup in Bangladesh. They were dumped out of the tournament by neighbours Namibia in the first round. Since their victory two years ago, they have lost 13 out of 15 matches to Bangladesh alone.
There are concerns over the quality of coaching, especially as Ray Jennings, who had coached the under-19s eight years before that, was replaced immediately after his World Cup triumph. Lawrence Mahatlane, the current coach, who had success at provincial level with the Gauteng team, has since come under scrutiny for a lack of first-class playing experience.
Those worries extend higher up too. Cruel as it sounds, Russell Domingo has had the same criticism levelled at him, even though it may be nothing more than a coincidence that South Africa’s dip in form has come under his tenure. Let’s not forget that a coach does not always need to have played – think Mike Hesson – and South Africa’s divided past meant many current coaches did not have the opportunity to play at higher levels.
The finger-pointing at Domingo is somewhat unfair. South Africa had similar inconsistency at the start of Mickey Arthur’s time in charge and Domingo has achieved many firsts. He was the first coach to win a World Cup knock-out game and the first to win a bilateral ODI series in India. That those feats came in the fifty-over format may give Domingo some reason to feel a little less uneasy going into this clash.
“Every coach in every series loss will feel some pressure, that’s the nature of our jobs,” Domingo said when the team assembled in Bloemfontein on Sunday. “But once you take stock and gather your thoughts, you move on and focus on the next series. As a coach, the result is not your hands. You’ve just got to prepare the side as well as you can and hope they execute their skills well enough. I am under no more pressure than any other international coach.”
But that does not mean he is taking this task lightly either. “There are no soft series or less important series, they are all important, particularly coming off a Test series loss.”
Domingo hopes South Africa can use these matches to show they still have the ingredients of a good side, and that includes the support staff. They will add to their stocks when a yet-to-be-named batting coach joins the ranks, probably in time for the third ODI. That would give South Africa every resource a cricket unit would want but, depending on who that person is, it may not give the public what they want.
South Africans are concerned that there is a brain drain, especially as other South Africans are cropping up in places where they could be used at home. Gary Kirsten did some coaching with the England Lions, Graham Ford has rejoined Sri Lanka, Makhaya Ntini has signed on as Zimbabwe’s bowling coach and Pierre de Bruyn and Jennings helped Namibia’s under-19s.
There may be more to follow, which is why this ODI series is important – a show of strength on the field will help dispel the concerns about the team’s future. In the grander scheme of things, it does not mean much but, right now, it could be the team’s way of showing there is still some hope, especially among its senior core.
AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla were never really doubted in form terms, even as Amla struggled with the Test captaincy and de Villiers notched up three ducks in a row., However, Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy were both dropped during the Test series. This is their chance to come back.
From a bowling perspective, South Africa are without some of their premier pacemen with Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn out of the series, Kyle Abbott out of some matches and Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada in need of rest, but that means the second wave, including Marchant de Lange, must step up. Of particular interest will be who latches onto the allrounder’s role with Chris Morris and David Wiese in the squad and Albie Morkel in line to return once he has recovered from a back injury.
Even with nothing to gain, South Africa will use this series to solidify and gain back some of the public confidence they lost ahead of the World T20.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo