January 4, 2012

Small peaks, deep valleys

South Africa's 2011 had more heartache than happiness. They unearthed an exciting new fast bowler but remained trophy-less on the world stage

The beginning of South Africa's 2011 looked strangely similar to its end. A year that started with disappointment ended with it. In between was an emotional ride on a rough sea, which yielded too few results and threw up too many unanswered questions.

After a gritty effort to draw the January Test against India in Cape Town, South Africa earned some confidence with a 3-2 win in the ODI series. The victory put them on track for the World Cup, a tournament they entered with a plan to have three frontline spinners, including Pakistani-born leggie Imran Tahir, two left-armers and a solid batting line-up, albeit without a big-hitting No. 7. They cruised past West Indies and Netherlands but were tripped up by a tricky pitch and an England side willing to scrap with all they had in Chennai.

The defeat brought South Africa back to earth and they responded with an out-of-this-world performance against India in Nagpur. The aura that surrounded the team after the win was one that said they could go all the way. Convincing wins over Ireland and Bangladesh saw South Africa top their group, and the quarter-final draw paired them, favourably, with New Zealand.

Then, horror unfolded. A batting collapse saw South Africa lose the un-losable and return home empty-handed. Graeme Smith, in his last tournament as ODI captain, did not accompany the team but flew to Ireland, to propose to his girlfriend, sparking the wrath of a nation.

A seven-month break followed, bringing with it new brooms with which to sweep the dust that built up over the longest break the national team had had in 14 seasons. World Cup-winning coach Gary Kirsten was put in charge of his home country and chose former national fast bowler Allan Donald, whose bags were already packed for New Zealand, and Warriors coach Russell Domingo to be his aides. AB de Villiers was announced second in command of the Test team and captain of the ODI and T20 ones, with Hashim Amla as his deputy. The new appointments were expected to bring some fresh air to the landscape, but come October, the only thing that blew in was the same stale breeze.

In a cruel twist, de Villiers was unable to play in his first series as captain, against Australia, after breaking his finger during training. Amla was put in charge of the limited-overs side, which drew the two-match T20 series and lost the ODI contest 2-1.

Redemption finally came in an epic Test match at Newlands, when South Africa beat Australia inside three days. Vernon Philander impressed his home crowd with eight wickets on debut, and Smith and Amla both scored hundreds in the chase. The Wanderers provided a longer contest, one that South Africa could have won. Despite Philander's continuing heroics with the ball and a second century from Amla, South Africa fell short and drew the series. There was no third Test to decide the winner between the two old foes.

South Africa's final assignment was thought to be a relatively simple one, against Sri Lanka, and it started off that way. They rolled the subcontinental team by an innings and 81 runs on a green top in Centurion and got to Durban ready to overturn the jinx which has seen them lose the last four Tests there.

Sri Lanka had other plans. A much-improved outfit gave South Africa one of their most embarrassing defeats, a 208-run thrashing - their first win on South African soil - and showed South Africa how to rely on strength of mindset, something the hosts have still not been able to decipher.

The events that most damaged South African cricket in the last 12 months took place off the field. Cricket South Africa has been embroiled in a bitter boardroom battle, resulting in a vote of no-confidence in former president Mtutuzeli Nyoka twice. The matter has now escalated to a ministerial inquiry. The squabbles may not have actually spilt over to the field but there is no doubt they have soiled the image of cricket in the country. With an administration in chaos and a team struggling for an authoritative identity, South Africa enter 2012 with a repair job to be done, both on and off the field.

High point
Most of South Africa's cricketers said the last time they saw 21 for 9 on a scoreboard was when at school games, and they could barely believe it when it appeared it up in lights during Australia's second innings at Newlands. On a pitch that was not nearly as hellish as the figures suggest, Philander, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel inflicted four ducks on Australia. Only two batsmen managed double figures as they were shot out for 47.

Low point
A collection of green, yellow and white bags lay forlorn at Dhaka International Airport on the morning of March 26. The team that owned them was leaving Bangladesh that day, wishing the day before had been a dream. For the sixth time, South Africa failed in the 50-over showpiece, but this time the disappointment had a different sting. With a squad tailormade for the conditions, big talk and even some big action in the group stage, many thought they would defy destiny. But they didn't. Smith appeared to be worst affected and was booed at every venue around the country when the local summer started.

New kid on the block
He is closer to a comeback kid than a new kid but Vernon Philander has been South Africa's find of the season. After plugging away in the first-class set up for the past two seasons, during which he has taken 94 wickets, he was rewarded with a national call-up which paid enormous dividends. In his first three Test matches, Philander took 24 Test wickets, using his consistent fourth-stump line and questioning length. A knee injury prevented him from playing the last Test of the year but he should be back for South Africa's tours in 2012. The real newcomer is young tearaway Marchant de Lange, who took the best figures by a bowler on debut this year in the Boxing Day Test. de Lange consistently reaches speeds of over 140kph but will need to fashion his raw pace into real skill in the coming 12 months.

Fading star
A common joke in a South African commentary box is that Mark Boucher will one day have to be wheeled out behind the stumps in a chair because he will play until he is old enough to need one. With no clear successor in sight, Boucher is continually afforded to the opportunity to prolong a career that some feel should have ended a few years ago. His record-breaking efforts continue but one has to wonder: for how much longer?

What 2012 holds
South Africa had a fairly light load in 2011, with just five Tests, a World Cup and a smattering of ODIs. Despite the sparse match time, the squad was under severe mental strain, as they choked in an ICC tournament and played intense Test cricket against India, Australia and Sri Lanka. The next 12 months will see a packed schedule. South Africa visit New Zealand, England and Australia and have to compete in an ICC World Twenty20, before hosting New Zealand and Pakistan. It is a year filled with opportunity, to go top of the Test rankings and to win an ICC trophy, but is also a year filled with pressure that South Africa will have to find a way to deal with.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent