South Africa December 28, 2016

The rebound specialists

South Africa's year started badly and got worse, before taking a decisive turn for the better

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It started off so bad when South Africa failed for the third time in a row to win a home series against England. Then it got a little worse. They were booted out of the World T20 in the first round and did not make the final of a triangular series in the Caribbean against West Indies and Australia. By mid-year, South Africa were in crisis, coach Russell Domingo's job was under threat, and a national and domestic review was planned.

But it ended up so good. Even though the initial independent investigation into the performance of the country's top cricket teams was canned and the Test and ODI captain AB de Villiers spent several months injured, South Africa staged a spectacular turnaround and beat Australia in ODIs at home and Tests away to end 2016 with hope.

In a year of two halves, the Test team lost the No. 1 ranking for the first time in three years and tumbled as far as No. 7 before crawling back up. They will finish at No. 4 and have their sights set on entering the top three over the course of their current series against Sri Lanka at home, and the upcoming one against New Zealand away. Results aside, they will be assured of a brighter 2017 because they have found the certainty they lacked last year.

In 12 months, South Africa have had three Test captains but have finally settled on the correct choice, Faf du Plessis. The team has responded to him in ways it does not to either de Villiers, or Hashim Amla. Du Plessis challenges and inspires, which is what this South African team needs.

In March, South Africa crashed out of the World T20 in the first round © Associated Press

They are slowly shifting from an era of superstars to being able to rely on overall team performances, and their victories over Australia were evidence of that. In the ODIs, there were centuries from four different players; in the Tests, from five. The reserve bowlers, who appeared lost last season, have found their mojo. It has helped that Vernon Philander has returned and Kagiso Rabada has matured, but Kyle Abbott has become undroppable and the spin department is well stocked.

That has helped mask issues like Hashim Amla's struggles - eight innings without a Test hundred - but he still ended the year as South Africa's highest run scorer in Tests. Quinton de Kock, who also led the ODI run-charts for South Africa, and Stephen Cook were second and third to firmly establish the new generation. Rabada was their top Test bowler, with Imran Tahir still dominating in limited-overs' matches.

Still, not everything in the set-up is perfect and South African cricket could find itself facing a drain. Three recently capped Test players - Hardus Viljoen, Simon Harmer and Stiaan van Zyl - signed Kolpak deals and there is talk of more to follow as Brexit looms. The declining rand is not the only drawcard for these players; a lack of opportunity in South Africa's six-team system, which is also governed by transformation targets, keeps some of them out. While administrators are concerned about the departures, they continue to proclaim optimism over the talent South Africa is producing.

Equally, there is cheer over CSA's decision to make public their transformation goals, especially at national level. In September they announced the team would be required to play a minimum average of six players of colour, of which at least two need to be black African. To date, they have kept up with that requirement, and should it continue, the ban on bidding for or hosting major international events, which was placed on them by the sports ministry in April, could be lifted as early as next year. That would leave open the possibility of hosting a World T20 in 2018, should it take place.

South Africa completed their third straight Test series win in Australia late in 2016 © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

High point
Since West Indies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, no team has beaten Australia in three successive Test series down under, and South Africa were not expected to. Especially not after de Villiers was ruled out pre-series with an elbow injury and Dale Steyn was lost on the second day with a broken shoulder. Contributions throughout the batting line-up, the return of Philander and the way Abbott and Rabada stepped up all enabled South Africa to emerge victorious. They had whitewashed Australia 5-0 in a home ODI series before the Tests to claim back-to-back wins over their greatest rivals.

Low point
At the start of the year, South Africa were bowled out for 83 at the Wanderers to lose the series against England and their No. 1 Test ranking. The collapse was their worst at home since readmission and their second-worst anywhere in the same period.

New kid on the block
It may be difficult to imagine but not so long ago South Africa feared their allrounders cupboard was bare. They have now discovered it fully stocked. The latest among them is Andile Phehlukwayo, a 20-year-old who bowls a heavy ball, can bat time, and who finished as the leading wicket-taker in the 5-0 ODI whitewash over Australia. He was injured during the domestic T20 campaign but could be part of South Africa's major-tournament plans.

Fading stars
Last year ended with uncertainty over Steyn nursing a shoulder injury and 2016 has finished in exactly the same way. He is set to sit out the first half of 2017 recovering from surgery, and there are murmurs about whether he will return at all. With only five wickets to get to overtake Shaun Pollock as South Africa's leading wicket-taker in Test cricket, Steyn can't be ruled out just yet, but he is not the only fast bowler on the injured list. Morne Morkel did not play internationals in the second half of the year and is still battling a back niggle. Morkel was also left out of the World T20 squad and only used sparingly in the triangular series in the Caribbean. He has fallen off the radar in shorter formats and South Africa may have to get used to an attack without him.

What 2017 holds
A busy first three months will see South Africa complete the hosting of their only home tour this summer, against Sri Lanka, and then visit New Zealand for a full tour. The winter break is much shorter than usual and ends in late May, when South Africa embark on a three-month tour of the UK. They kick off with ODIs and the Champions Trophy, play three T20Is and then four Tests, in what could be a race to reclaim the mace. The 2017-18 summer is being spoken of as the busiest to date, with 13 home Tests in the offing, but the details have yet to be ironed out. An increasingly packed calendar means player workloads will need to be carefully managed, especially as this is also the year South Africa plan on unveiling their new T20 competition. An eight-team franchise tournament is on the cards for late 2017 as South Africa aim to replicate the premier leagues around the world.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • warren0559604 on December 29, 2016, 10:41 GMT

    @SHONGOLOLO 'a kid named Leeus due Plooy'. Must say this kid gives me the same warm fuzzy feeling I had when I saw De Kick smash a 130 odd for the Lions at Wanderers. That day i said that kid will be a star. And today i say du Plooy will be the same, hes much like an old Free Stater i once new, Mr Hansis Cronje.

  •   Naman Agarwal on December 29, 2016, 4:47 GMT

    Let''s see. 2016 started out chaotic. Thrashed by England in tests, but thanks to Morris, came back in the ODI series from 0-2 down to win 3-2. Then the WT20. Expected to be finalists, knocked out in the first round. Tri-series in Carribean. Expected to be finalists, knocked out earlier. So many questions, so many doubts.Then AB got injured. Could've been disastrous. Held their own against NZ. An insignificant win. Then comes Australia, resting their main bowlers, perhaps underestimating SA. SA also tested their bench strength and it paid off. 5-0 whitewash. Aussies aggravated. Tests in Australia. Still no AB. First match, Aus en route to dominance, Steyn takes the most important wicket of the series and injured next ball. Everyone steps up. Turnaround. Bashing Aus in first 2 matches. Ball-tampering charges. Team coming together. Heavy build-up for Adelaide. Faf's magnificent century. But a loss. No problem. AB steps down as captain. 2017 is going to be interesting for sure.

  • Muzammil on December 28, 2016, 19:29 GMT

    @Sauron, quite correct. It's strange isn't it? Players fearing the loss of an opportunity to represent another country. It's a real shame and I've said this on another post. There are too many decent/mediocre cricketers who feel entitled to a place and blame quotas and economics when moving. The economics there's not much CSA can do, but attitudes need to change. Players need to embrace the transformation policies and just continue banging down the door. Nobody is blocked if they're good enough. Transformation is here to stay and if it's successful in providing exposure to the majority to redress the imbalance of the Apartheid regime then we'll see results in the long run. Even short run, i really cant see anyone being blocked by a 'quota'. The fall guy is Behardien for some reason despite proving every season hes a top 5 domestic player. Otherwise its Duminy. Its also silly when every team has a player or two that gets longer rope than others. Think Rohit, Guptill and Marsh in Tests. It doesnt mean duminy is picked on race. Absolutely not. i say, let them leave if they refuse to work towards creating equality in our country. They will be replaced eventually.

  • Rachit on December 28, 2016, 18:50 GMT

    Race to the mace in 2017 against England ?? Until India lose to Australia and suddenly decide to play a series in England, there is no chance of any other team coming close to them next year .. not a sign of how good India is, but a benefit of playing a lot of matches at a stretch at home ... SA might be looking at the mace at the end of their 13 match home season next year ... and people thought only Big 3 play matches at home ...

  • Brijesh on December 28, 2016, 18:27 GMT

    As for the team itself, SA should probably be the team of the year, despite losing the series to Eng. They beat possibly the second strongest team at home, whitewashed the best ODI team, and seem pretty solid on most fronts - all without their best batsman or bowler. Pace has rarely been a problem, spin is covered up with the exciting Shamsi, Tahir and Maharaj. Batting looks a little fragile with Amla going downhill, but de Kock, Bavuma, etc. are more than making up. All in all, exciting times ahead.

  • Brijesh on December 28, 2016, 18:19 GMT

    Ummm.... - "there is talk of more to follow as Brexit loom". I didn't get this. How does Brexit (Britain's exit from the EU) encourage more players to move from SA? Or does Moonda say this in the short term perspective, as in, more players would clamber to move away before Britain fully secedes from the EU?

    Also, while I'm a fervent believer in freedom for players to move and play where they want (I back a franchise based Test setup), the fact that this seems to be impacting some specific countries is troubling for the present. Sure SA have their own set of domestic problems which some players understandably try to get away from, but, that can be disastrous if it leads to significant weakening of cricket in SA. Perhaps it makes sense for the ICC to step in and put some sort of a limit on the number of 'away' cricketers that can represent any country. It certainly does not sync with free market principles, but, I'd understand if some regulation like that does make it's way in.

  • Phillip on December 28, 2016, 13:24 GMT

    When ABD returns who to drop? Duminy and Elgar have both underperformed. Elgar is still youngish at 29, JPD is 33. I fear Cook will be the one to make way.

  • Muzammil on December 28, 2016, 9:33 GMT

    @Shongololo, Agreed. There's certainly a lot of talent. Most of the names mentioned by @BlahBlah have about 1.5-3 years left in the game (Abbott, Philander a bit more?) That's plenty of time for new faces to come through and other established players to kick on to better stats. No reason to fear just yet. Also forgot to mention we have Morris (what's happened to him since his injury? ), Pretorius, Bavuma, Rilee developing very well in limited overs.

  • Paul on December 28, 2016, 6:51 GMT

    BLAHBLAH...there are plenty of young new ones waiting to burst onto the scene, from Aiden Markram to allrounders Jason Smith and Wian Mulder...and then there are people like Rilee on the fringes, also de Bruyn and a kid named Leeus du Plooy. That's just for starters so don't despair.

  • Venkata on December 28, 2016, 2:27 GMT

    Well written. Started dicey but ended sweet. I liked this line "In 12 months, South Africa have had three Test captains but have finally settled on the correct choice, Faf du Plessis."

    Worrying signs for SA is 1) Quotas in National team, 2) Kolpak deals being signed by our players, 3) Amla's form.

    Hope the year 2017 be a glorious one for SA. Wish the team, the writer & fellow supporters a very happy new year.

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