The prospect of a second consecutive Test series defeat at home stares large at South Africa as they prepare to take on England in the fourth and final Test in Johannesburg, beginning on Friday.
The tables have turned quickly on the hosts who started the four-match series with a bang in Centurion. Now finding themselves trailing by 1-2, the Proteas will also have to make do without the services of the banned Kagiso Rabada.
Rabada’s suspension could not have been more untimely, but it is the future beyond the series which looks even more bleak for South Africa. The clash will mark the swansong of Vernon Philander, with the brilliant exponent of seam bowling set to retire at the end of the series.
By his own admission, the Johannesburg clash is also likely to be skipper Faf du Plessis’ final home Test appearance. With South Africa not due to host another Test until 2021, the 35-year-old’s time in the Proteas whites seems to be on its last legs and a two-match series in the West Indies in July could well be his final red-ball hurrah.
While du Plessis’ Test performances have been dripping alarmingly over the last two years, his potential departure, coupled with the confirmed exit of Philander, marks the end of a truly dominant era for South Africa.
Between December 2006 and November 2015, South Africa went on a remarkable Test run which saw them lose just two series out of a total of 30. Both those series defeats came against Australia – the dominant Test team of that era. Even after their two back-to-back series defeats against India and England towards the end of 2015, South Africa stitched together another impressive run which saw them win eight of their next nine bilateral Test series.
That run was finally broken by Sri Lanka last February when the islanders achieved an unprecedented 2-0 whitewash on South African soil. That series defeat marked the end of the Test careers of stalwarts Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn – two vital cogs of the side which established itself as a formidable Test outfit under former skipper Graeme Smith. A year prior to that, AB de Villiers had announced his shock international departure.
Smith is now the temporary director of cricket for South Africa in a turbulent time both on and off the pitch, while his trusted wicketkeeper Mark Boucher has taken over the coaching reigns of a team which can be described as ‘broken’.
Given the amount of experience South Africa have lost over the last three years, a massive rebuilding job awaits Smith and Boucher. On the evidence of the ongoing series, it definitely won’t be an easy one for the duo. While South Africa have been poor, it is easy to forget that they are up against an England side whose own Test credentials have been shaky at best.
England coach Chris Silverwood has a similar rebuilding task on his hand after taking over from Trevor Bayliss. The difference for Silverwood and England is that their youngsters – Dominic Sibley and Ollie Pope – have started to deliver. Having the experienced shoulders of Joe Root, James Anderson, Stuart Broad and star all-rounder Ben Stokes sure helps as well.
For South Africa, on the other hand, the old guard is moving out at such a dramatic rate that the void left behind is not one that can easily be filled. It will take plenty of time, and some painful defeats along the way, before the loss of a somewhat ‘golden generation’ can be overcome.
Only opener Dean Elgar, and newly appointed ODI skipper Quinton de Kock, will be the players left with a reasonable amount of Test experience under their belts.
In Rabada and Keshav Maharaj, they have two bowlers who can hold their own against the best in the world. The rest of the squad, unfortunately, looks paper thin and devoid of any real Test experience.
There might still be some life left in the hosts yet and they could still let out one final roar in Johannesburg to level the series for all we know. The real work, though, will start after the Test as a prolonged period of uncertainty awaits the Proteas.
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