Mark Nicholas – Through upheaval and chaos, South Africa show the fighting spirit that has always defined their cricket
Mike Procter was lying in his hospital bed in Durban when Dean Elgar, pitchside at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch, said: “We are going to beat.” Procter’s heart, which had just been repaired with a new valve and a double bypass, skipped a beat. “What are we going? the mighty Proc shouted 7,000 miles away, after watching the commentators’ presentation report.
“Have you seen that?” he asked me on the phone later that day, “Honestly, Marcus, there was a lot of grass on the court, a must-have bowl, if you ask me, especially one in a two-game series but, damn it , they battled hard with the bat and look now, 230 odd, only three down… you gotta shake hands with Elgar, hey He’s got a lot of guts that guy, he really does. If they win from here, well, what a decision to knock.”
And they won.
In short, the South African team has had a remarkable season. Long underdogs in their home series against India over Christmas and New Year, and longer still at the Black Caps in February, Elgar’s resilient men beat all odds, proving a game for both sides to played in the World Championship test match final last June.
Plagued by political infighting and financial uncertainty, the players rose above the chaos of the boardroom to remind the world of the essential characteristics of South Africa: spirit and optimism. first of all.
The soul of this great country had been in their performance, as it comes with the need to dig deep and sit down. It’s hard to think of more impressive South African victories. The wonder of these was the relatively modest level of talent available and the collective willpower that overcame it. As Procter added, “It just shows what you can do if you want to do it badly enough. Fantastic!”
After a chop and a change or two, the choice of Elgar as captain of the Test team and Temba Bavuma of the short-form teams turned out to be quite brilliant. Bavuma’s calm assessment of one or two alarming off-pitch situations led to a heightened sense of authority on the pitch. His team deserved to qualify for the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates last November, but having lost only one game in the round robin stage, they fell foul of their slightly lower stroke rate.
Elgar’s staff is forged in steel, but we knew that. What we couldn’t have imagined is that his captaincy would have such a clear sense of values and direction. Most of these down-to-earth, willow-biting men get their results in a bubble of self-discipline, which doesn’t necessarily align with the larger demands of captaincy.
Much like Graeme Smith before him, Elgar tells it like he sees it, sticks close to pragmatism and enjoys spending his day wondering what the opposition would least like him to do next. After losing Game 1 of both series, Elgar told his players they had it in them to bounce right back with their own win, if only they could believe it. The thing is, when he says that, they look him in the eye and immediately know that, far from cowardly rhetoric, it’s both a show of seriousness and absolute confidence in them.
In round two of the Christchurch Test, only Devon Conway, a South African now playing for New Zealand, stood between them and leveling the series. We wondered what he was doing with it. Five years ago, Conway left his native country in search of opportunity – he’s not the first and won’t be the last. Sure, he’s another gifted South African forced to look elsewhere, but he readily admits his inconsistent form in top-class cricket was more of a hindrance than the selection quotas that had denied others. He grew up spending hours at the box office with his mate Quinton de Kock and the irony that neither played for South Africa in the last game in New Zealand will have escaped them.
When de Kock announced he was withdrawing from Test cricket following South Africa’s defeat at Centurion, Elgar admitted he was surprised. “I’m sitting next to him in the dressing room,” he said in a recent India series documentary, “and I had no idea!” He was quite disappointed, of course, but quickly turned the conversation to another man’s crack at the top.
Kyle Verreynne’s magnificent unbeaten 136 – along with an eye-catching one hundred by new boy Sarel Erwee – set the bowlers up to strike hard and fast for South Africa’s victory in Christchurch and remind everyone that the Opportunity comes to those who wait patiently. At the start of 2021, Veryenne couldn’t think he would be playing Test cricket for his country anytime soon. Now, two months later, he’s featured prominently in three memorable hits.
Her story is a lesson for those less patiently waiting: just be there, fit and ready for the moment, because if you’re good enough, it will invariably come. Representing someone else’s country is a great achievement; representing his is the fulfillment of a dream. David Bedingham, the 27-year-old batsman from Western Province who plays for Durham in English Premier League cricket, is that man right now. The rumor is that he hopes to qualify for England in three years. It is hoped that South African coaches will have an eye on his every move.
Frankly, with the ambient noise and lingering tone, it’s something that South African sport continues to rival with the enthusiasm, vigor and glory of yesteryear. It’s safe to say that the achievements of today’s gamers surpass those of any other era, so great are the obstacles in their way. Rugby players hold the World Cup, cricketers have just beaten the best, a dozen golfers are in the world’s top 100. Add sprinter Wayde van Niekerk and swimmer Chad Le Clos, plus plenty of others in more low-key sports, and you get the picture.
There is an inherent competitiveness among South Africans that seems to come without arrogance or entitlement. You see it in business and even in the arts, just as much as in sports. It makes for great deeds, life-affirming stories and confirmation that the land and the life it offers has been hard-earned.
After the defeat in the first match of the India Series – a match in which Kagiso Rabada looked like he had lost the joy of his cricket – Elgar took him aside. His message was simple: you are respected by all of us, and we are so often inspired by your performance, but we need more of you here and we need you now. We need your total commitment, your leadership, your power, your precision. In short, we can’t win this series without you at your talismanic best.
In the next match, at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, where India had never been beaten, Rabada stepped up a gear. By morning three, the fast-paced match was on a knife edge – India 155 for 2 in their second set, 128 ahead with Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane seemingly in control. Rabada pressed the pedal to the floor. He found a beauty of a bouncing legcutter for Rahane, a break for Pujara and some sniffling bouncers for Rishabh Pant, whose response was to shimmy downfield and swish at the next ball, which he nicked to Verreynne behind the strains. It was a thrilling match of cricket, moments stolen by a modern master, moments that snatched the game from India’s hands. Of course, there was still a lot to do by others, but KG had opened the door for his comrades to come in and take control.
It was then that Elgar played one of the rounds of his life, the undefeated 96 that took his team over the line. Like a boxer, he was exhausted the moment the stumps were pulled out, but rarely, if ever, had he felt more satisfied. It was both a feat of endurance and a round of excellence exactly when it was needed. A kaleidoscope of bruises was the physical proof; the chance to take the series in Cape Town his mental power point.
At Newlands, two recruits have added to their growing reputation: a slight build, strong-minded and technically sound; the other 6 feet 8 inches of skin and bones and a huge heart.
Keegan Petersen scored in both sets of this decider, riding Jasprit Bumrah’s high rebound and working with the sideways movement of the ball like an old friend. Hard on himself after mistakes cost him his two wickets at Centurion, he played relatively risk-free cricket on difficult grounds at Wanderers and Newlands never letting India’s fine attack rule him. It’s been a long, slow burn for Paarl, 28, but South Africa now has its own KP.
Marco Jansen took 7 for 91 in 37.3 high-quality bowling overs in that same decider, freely admitting that suffocating Boxing Day nerves were already part of his cricketing past. He was the perfect foil for Rabada, mainly hammering the back from the length and giving nothing to some of the game’s most gifted players. There was something of young Glenn McGrath in him, albeit with a different arm, and , as it fills up, one can only see a path similar to that taken by the great Australian bowler. Like McGrath, he too was happy to mix it up and a memorable exchange with Bumrah at the Wanderers proved he was a worthy successor to the fine, spirited South African fast bowlers of the past – men who won’t take no for an answer.
We’re almost done here but a word for Mark Boucher is needed to complete the story. In the aforementioned documentary, Elgar, Bavuma and other team members praise their coach, with Elgar pointing out that Boucher is starting his best work and losing him now would be a waste. Boucher, of course, has a charge of racism to fight against the governing body – Cricket South Africa – which employs him. This comes from findings made before Christmas by the ombudsman for social justice and nation-building. Imagine going to work under such pressure and delivering like he did! For the good of South African cricket, the hope is that his name will be cleared and play as a whole can continue.
Boucher’s street fighter is exactly the kind of quality the team needs right now and the recoveries from the first game loss in both series referenced here have his fingerprints all over the place. In fact, this triumvirate – Elgar, Bavuma, Boucher – is the way to go. The tremendous cricket played by South Africa over the past two months is the best proof of this.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a television and radio presenter and commentator