Whether or not England’s Test series victory in South Africa has handed captain Joe Root the template for the team’s next Ashes campaign ~ that is how it is being viewed as of now ~ there is very little doubt that the home defeat marks a new low in the Proteas’ track record. The 3- 1 margin, truth to tell, takes on a whole new meaning when you reckon with the fact that England, for much of their time on the tour, missed some of their front-rank cricketers because of a viral infection which going by reliable accounts had reporters from London discussing, even if somewhat fancifully, which ones among them stood a chance of being invited to join the squad, just in case.
That the travelling group of journalists featured several former top-level cricketers might have provoked dramatic, even humorous narratives but well might the heroes of yesteryear have been left too stupefied by the extent of the South African decline to attempt anything in the way of a Blighty laugh story. Matters, to put it simply, had come to a head. Post-apartheid South African cricket had not really come to terms with reality as it should have, reconciliation allegedly proving a less appealing objective than driving it home that, under the vastly altered socio-political circumstances in the country, even cricket needed to recognise that whites would henceforth matter less than the others.
A racial quota system came to be institutionalised. It was enforced with an appreciable degree of inflexibility. It was not as if all blacks were not up to the mark but the kind of keen domestic competition that endowed a national team with a country’s best talents was no longer possible, it was said years ago. Race outweighed all else. True, several South African whites had left their country to represent England and Australia much earlier too, but new reality spurred quite an exodus.
A look at the list will persuade anyone that cricketers looking for a living on the domestic circuit in England leave the Proteas short of talent they could do with, especially in a situation when they struggle after the retirements of such stalwarts as AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis. But Cricket South Africa hardly seemed to know its job ~ or care ~ when Enoch Nkwe came down to India as South Africa’s pathfinding tutor on their latest visit, spoke an infinite deal of nothing and saw his team take a spectacular toss.
His eventual exit could be taken for granted long before it occurred but, little by little, and in various ways, the damage had been done. It was just as well that Faf du Plessis’ feebly expressed post-defeat optimism was remarkable for its recording of reality: South Africa are not among Test cricket’s elite teams now. They have fallen rather badly.