It was a month ago to the day that Russell Domingo, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers set off from O.R. Tambo International Airport on a new era for South African cricket, their first assignment a daunting tour of Sri Lanka, where the Proteas have found it hardest to win.
On Tuesday they returned triumphant, full of smiles, after beating the in-form Sri Lankans on their home turf in both the ODI and Test series; the Proteas are as much champions as the Springbok Sevens team who were on the same flight from Dubai with Commonwealth Games gold medals.
“We knew going to Sri Lanka would be a very tough tour, but the ODI series win gave us lots of confidence. We weren’t favourites for the Tests, though, but winning the first Test gave us that tag. Everyone just clicked at the same time,” Test captain Amla said on Tuesday.
“Last year we came back from a tough tour of Sri Lanka and we were much more glum. Now we are very excited and proud, beating Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka in both formats. Our record there over the last 20 years shows how tough it is to do that,” coach Domingo said.
Six-and-a-half months out from the World Cup, ODI captain De Villiers was also understandably buoyant as the 2-1 series victory takes their record to 10 wins in their last 14 matches.
“You can never be perfectly ready for a World Cup, but I’m very comfortable with where we are at the moment. The players have a greater understanding of their roles and I know my players better, who I can rely on in pressure situations, who I can strike with and who I maybe need to rally around at times,” De Villiers said.
Despite the positive mood, however, the Proteas know that there are areas that they need to address if they are to hang on to the number one Test ranking and be challengers at the World Cup.
The Test side can obviously do with a more solid opening partnership and a more consistent frontline spinner and, although Domingo backed the incumbents in these positions, his eye is surely on them.
“We know we’re not the finished article, there’s still a lot of tinkering to be done. This is very much a new start, with new faces. I’m not saying we’re going to experiment, but there is space for one or two guys to get an opportunity. Sri Lanka is not the right place to blood new players and it was our most experienced players who really fired over there,” Domingo said.
Imran Tahir, despite his heroics with the bat at the end of the second Test, tended to provide a four-ball an over with his leg-spin and an average of 47.17 after 15 Tests as a strike bowler suggests that the selectors’ patience may be wearing thin when it comes to five-day cricket.
“It’s tough for a spinner in the sub-continent because there’s a lot of pressure on you, people always look to the spinner to do well. But Sri Lanka have some of the best players of spin in the world and I honestly felt Imran bowled better than his figures suggest. His performances weren’t as good as he knows he can be, but he can still offer a helluva lot in all formats,” Domingo said in defence of the leggie, who took four wickets at an average of 84 in the Tests.
“There are not many opening batsmen with the pedigree of Alviro Petersen in domestic cricket and, with Graeme Smith retiring, it’s very difficult to replace two opening batsmen. Alviro has played 32 Tests and scored five centuries, including knocks of 182 and 156, so he has the potential to play match-winning innings, he has the experience and a calm head,” Domingo said of the 33-year-old, who has scored just 133 runs in eight innings this year.
For De Villiers, the biggest improvement needed in the ODI side is in the fielding.
“There are lots of areas to improve, but especially in the field. We’re not the strongest in the world there, but we should be in the top two or three by the time we get to the World Cup,” De Villiers said.
The tour to Zimbabwe – the one-off Test in Harare starts on August 9 and is followed by three ODIs and then a triangular series of four more matches with Australia – provides the opportunity for some fringe players to get game time.
Whether the management feel comfortable moving Stiaan van Zyl, a number three batsman, up to open instead of Petersen, or giving Quinton de Kock the job, and causing more questions over who takes the gloves, remains to be seen. And off-spinner Dane Piedt could be worth a run in relatively stress-free conditions in Zimbabwe.
Domingo did suggest, however, that the three ODIs before the triangular series could see some senior players being rested, particularly the pace bowlers.
“Nobody wants to be rested for Test matches and it’s not easy to chop and change the Test side, but in the ODIs we’ll probably rest Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander for the first three games. We played those three frontline seamers consistently in an ODI series for the first time in Sri Lanka and it paid off in a big way, but the Zimbabwe games are an ideal opportunity to look at younger fast bowlers like Kyle Abbott and Wayne Parnell, who haven’t had much game time,” the coach said.
While De Villiers said he felt much more confident in the ODI captaincy, the promotion of Amla to Test skipper was another major feature of the Sri Lankan tour. And, as expected, it was an obvious success.
“The Tests were a testament to Hashim’s ability to lead, he got the best out of his players and, in a very tense situation on the last day, they pulled through. That’s partly because the captain had such a cool head himself,” Domingo said.
The determination of this Proteas side can perhaps be summed up in Amla’s tenacious first-innings century in the second Test and the new captain admitted that he felt some relief after his 139 not out followed innings of 11 and 22 in Galle.
“You want to contribute as captain and, although it is still a bit too early to tell whether the captaincy affects by batting, I was really glad to get a century under the belt, it settled me into the captaincy.
“The final day in Colombo showed the extreme hunger and passion in this side to represent our country as best we can. The guys put averages aside, put the ego that makes you want to score runs to one side. The best example of that was JP Duminy, who scored six runs off 123 balls, which is never easy to do. But that’s what you need to be successful,” Amla said.
This Proteas side certainly seem to know the magic formula of success and the new era under Amla has enjoyed the smoothest of introductions.