SA V INDIA, 3RD TEST
Keegan Petersen was named Player of the Series © Getty
When South Africa were three wickets down chasing 240 to win the second Test against India at the Wanderers last week, Kyle Verreynne, the next batter in, aimed a fraught stare at the scene as if his pads were the ramparts of a castle under siege. At Newlands on Friday, when South Africa were three wickets down chasing 212 to win the third Test at Newlands, and with it the series, Verreynne sat padded up and smiling as if nothing could go wrong.
It didn’t, both times. What a difference winning makes. Not to mention winning twice after losing the first Test, at Centurion. And that against the No. 1 ranked team in the world. Maybe that’s the way of things in a side coached by Mark Boucher, captained by Dean Elgar, and with Temba Bavuma as his deputy. Three harder bastards in any era of cricket you will not find. For people like these, a good day starts with a fight. With themselves, if there’s no-one else around. That rubs off on everyone else.
“If you’ve got fighters as leaders and they are prepared to show that with bat or ball, it’s going to be the character of the team,” Boucher told an online press conference on Friday. “It wasn’t ideal losing the first match. We were a little bit undercooked, and that’s through no fault of any of the players [who had a practice match cancelled due to pandemic reasons].
“We knew we were going to get better as the series got along. It’s never nice playing from behind and playing under pressure. But we played the pressure moments pretty well. We are not winning all of them but when we lose a session, we are not losing it badly and that keeps us in the game.”
That represented progress from Centurion, where India reached 272/3 on a lacklustre first day for South Africa’s bowlers. “When we lost that first session in the first Test [India were 83/0 at lunch], we lost it so badly, we couldn’t get back into the game although we did try very hard. We probably lost too much in one session.”
Pulling it back from there was a tribute to the leadership. “It doesn’t surprise me,” Boucher said. “Dean is that sort of character, and he led from the front. You’ve got Temba – same sort of fighter, same spirit. When you’ve got two leaders like that, the guys are going to follow them. Both of them stood up with regards to their own games.
“A lot of people had written us off after day one of the Test series. To come back, after losing the first day badly, and win the second Test and this Test – after losing all three tosses – puts these things into perspective about where this team is and where the Indian team is.
“They are probably the best Test team in world cricket. This is something our boys won’t take for granted. There are a couple of youngsters who have come through really nicely and they’ll take a lot of confidence from this win, and not only the win but getting ourselves into good positions and winning games where it was hard, hard Test cricket.”
Unlike Elgar, Bavuma and their charges, Boucher could do nothing except watch and hope after his team resumed on Friday needing 111 more runs with eight wickets standing: “It’s completely different as a player compared to being a coach. As a player, it was quite a nervous day. But you feel like the buck stops with you. As a coach, your hands are tied behind your back. You haven’t got the chance to go out there and change the state of the game. From a nerves perspective, it was up there with one of my more nervous days in Test cricket.”
Boucher knows the difference first-hand. Of his 147 Tests as a player, two were the only other matches in which South Africa chased down more than 200 to win at Newlands: against India in January 2007 and against Australia in November 2011. He was also in South Africa’s side in March 2002, when Australia reeled off 334/6, the highest successful fourth innings at Newlands.
“When you’re in the batting changeroom, the runs always seem a mile away,” Boucher said. “When you’re in the fielding changeroom, you always feel like there are never quite enough.” On Friday, tensions eased when South Africa reached the morning drinks interval having taken their overnight 101/2 to 148 without further loss.
“Getting through the first hour unscathed was very important; it just settled the changeroom. That first hour was exactly what we needed. I like the intensity the guys batted with. We went out saying we’ve got to look to score. As we saw in the second Test, once you start getting to 50, 60 required and you start upping the tempo, it’s difficult as a bowling unit to slow the game down. It went according to plan today. It was a tense day but it’s a day the guys will remember for how to win in tough situations.”
Much of the winning in the series was done by No. 3 batter Keegan Petersen, who scored three half-centuries and was the rubber’s leading run-scorer with 276 at an average of 46.00 – no mean feat considering the Centurion and Wanderers pitches were challenging to bat on. Kagiso Rabada was the top wicket-taker with 20 at 19.05, but his thunder was stolen by Marco Jansen – who went from being a surprise debutant at Centurion to playing in all three matches and taking 19 at 16.47.
“Keegan has always shown signs of the batting we’re seeing right now,” Boucher said of a player who, after nine innings, seems to have nailed down a pivotal spot in the order. “He just stuck to his guns. He is in a good position having a guy like Dean next to him who really does back him. Batting at No. 3, you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to know your game, you’ve got to be technically sound. Hopefully he gets better and better. It’s a very tough position to bat in, in South Africa, in our conditions. The way he has come through in this series, I am lost for words. In a big series like this, against big players, he was man-of-the-series. It’s fully deserved and I am very, very happy for him.”
As for Jansen, the 2.06-metre tall left-arm fast bowler: “We saw what he had in Pakistan [in January and February last year], he was with us in West Indies [in June and July]. It was just a matter of time before he came through. You can see the skillset that he’s got. It’s a variation that is hard to find in cricket these days. He didn’t start off too well, but after that first day, we look at him now and everyone is looking saying what a find we’ve got. At 21, he has got a lot of cricket to learn. We’ve seen great signs with the bat as well. We’ve found a superstar in him as well, at a very young age.”
Under Boucher, South Africa have won six of their last seven bilateral series across the formats and performed better than expected at last year’s T20 World Cup despite exiting in the first round. It’s been a steep upward spell for a coach who started his tenure, in December 2019, by presiding over eight losses in his first 10 rubbers and attracting sometimes unfair criticism – which has continued even though he is delivering the required results.
“I believe we turned a corner quite a while ago,” Boucher said. “Our results have been pretty solid over the last six months to a year. Everyone went through a period in Covid times where our directive was just to get cricket up and running. We had the chance to try out a few players and that’s started to come good because we have a depth of players that we can turn to. You lose out on a guy like Anrich [Nortje, who missed the India series because of a hip injury] but then you get Marco.
“We are in a good space at the moment. Our feet are firmly on the ground, but we are by no means the finished product. This team is on their own mission. If people want to jump on the back of that, that’s great and that will be much appreciated, because we’ve been through some tough times of late.
“Our team are driven in a way that’s pretty special. I am incredibly proud of where they’ve come from over a short period of time and the results are starting to come through.”
Boucher and many South Africans – though not his detractors – will hope for more of the same when the first of three ODIs against India is played in Paarl on Wednesday.