This wasn’t supposed to happen. Virat Kohli arrived in South Africa primed to rectify a historic wrong by claiming a Test series victory for India in the only country left on their checklist.
Recent triumphs in England and Australia underlined their global supremacy with the red ball. Sure Kane Williamson’s lovable Black Caps beat them in the World Test Championship final. But that was a one off. An aberration. A quirk of the conditions and a bad day at the office. Over a multi-match series there would be no room to brush away the truth.
And the truth was glaring, This India team is immense. Cast aside the nationalist hyperbole and the gargantuan PR machine that is the BCCI. The immutable truth is that Kohli and his team should have beaten a rag tag group of Proteas fighting from one leg with their backs on the ropes, swinging haymakers and throwing Hail Marys, desperate for a rock to cling to and the chance to fight another day.
At least that is how it felt after the first few sessions of the series. Coach Mark Boucher said as much, referencing the wave of doubt that washed over his team following a poor opening day that saw KL Rahul bring up three figures courtesy of inept South African bowling.
That match went the way of the visitors by a margin of 113 runs. South Africa failed to reach 200 in both innings. Following the match Quinton de Kock, a rare generational talent, announced his retirement from Test cricket at the age of 29.
This premature exit was viewed as a symptom of a wider malaise in South African cricket. A board at war with itself, a culture riddled with accusations of racism 28 years after the first democratic election, a head coach dodging bullets in the papers and on social media and a batting unit without a single member averaging more than 40; the Proteas have faced periods of tumult before, but this chapter read like an obituary.
Standing at the pulpit, tasked with the reading of the last rites was Dean Elgar. A man who will be the first to point out his limitations at the crease but one who would walk over broken glass barefoot if it would improve his nation’s chance of a victory.
His fourth innings in Johannesburg, worth 96 unbeaten runs, lasting 188 balls and 309 minutes, and littered with umpteen blows to the torso turned the series. Keegan Petersen’s total tally of 276 runs meant he was awarded the Player of the Series award, but it was Elgar’s combative stand that delivered a body blow to India’s siege.
So too did his bowlers. Kagiso Rabada, so inept in the first match, was at his fiery best for the remaining two, serving a brutal reminder to those who had forgotten that when he steams in, angles it in, and gets it seam away at pace, he is up there with the best in the world. His personal duel with Kohli in the first innings in Cape Town was a thrilling spectacle.
Credit must go to Elgar again. There were reports of a bust up between captain and spearhead in the dressing room in Johannesburg. If this did indeed take place then it proved to be the catalyst the towering quick needed. Good captains come in many shapes. Elgar does not appear to be one for subtlety but then this is not a team in need of a quiet word.
Clearly it needs heat and flame. South African cricket has been smouldering for too long. Like a piece of charcoal in a forgotten braai, a once blistering source of national pride had become turgid and uninspiring. Elgar incited Rabada’s intensity. He himself found a flame burning within him and stood up to an onslaught from a battery of quicks that had conquered all else before them.
Hyperbole is a scourge in cricket analysis but this Test series win has a strong claim to being the best in South Africa’s history. They had no hope. Anything other than a 3-0 wash for the visitors would have been viewed as a job well done for South Africa. And yet they overcame a deficit and hammered their vaunted opponents in the remaining rubbers, chasing down fourth innings targets with comfort.
Where does this leave South African cricket? A win is only as good as what comes next and an away series against New Zealand and one at home to Bangladesh are now on the horizon. Elgar and Boucher will now expect victories in both before a challenging three-match contest in England later this year.
The bowling is formidable. Lungisani Ngidi had one of his best series for some time and has clearly worked on his fitness, often a source of derision for his critics. Duanne Olivier was unable to edge out the injured Anrich Nortje in the pecking order but still showed enough hunger and energy to warrant a place in future touring parties. Marco Jansen looks a genuine prospect, offering steepling bounce from his left arm attached to a two metre gangly frame. Add Keshav Maharaj – poorly handled throughout the series but still South Africa’s best red ball spinner of all time – and every facet of the attack is covered.
The batting remains a concern. Elgar’s fighting spirit can’t bail out his side every time they find themselves in a hole. Temba Bavuma and Rassie van der Dussen proved their reliability but failed to kick on once settled and the same questions have yet to be answered.
Petersen has earned himself plaudits but will take heed from Aiden Markram’s journey. The elegant opener’s first season at the elite level in 2017/18 was a coming out party for the ages, ending his inaugural spell at the top with an average over 50 after series against Bangladesh, India and Australia. He now averages 36.5. He’s been bowled shouldering arms while standing on middle stump and has been trapped LBW while standing on off. His drives off the front foot warrant their own NFT but he has a high score of 31 from his last eight innings. Perhaps a move down the order is what’s needed. Perhaps he is simply a walking warning for Petersen.
Whatever lessons are gleaned will only come into view at a later date. This win will hardly paper over cracks at CSA HQ, it will not eradicate the pall of toxicity that has hung over the institution, it will not turn struggling batters into world beaters or a coach with a mediocre record into a dynastic leader.
What it will do is inject a positive feeling into the veins of a cricket nation desperate for good news. It may yet encourage the richer nations to reward South Africa with a four-Test series once again. It may encourage young children to pick up a bat or ball and dream of donning the whites for their country. It may offer hope and light in these hopeless and dark times.
But that is for the future. What matters is the now. And now, South Africa have bested India’s best ever team. The gates remain shut. The fortress remains intact.
Daniel Gallan is a freelance journalist from Johannesburg now living and working in London, though the Wanderers will always be his spiritual home. He has contributed for a number of publications around the world including Cricinfo, Cricbuzz, the Guardian, the Telegraph and SuperSport. You can follow him on Twitter @danielgallan.