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ADRIAN EPHRAIM: How personal triumphs helped the Proteas bounce back

OPINION

“Bounce-back ability” is a phrase, a slogan - or word (if you spell it like “bouncebackability”) that has slowly entered the lexicon of South African cricket’s new era.

It’s entered through the mouths of the Proteas' new head coach Mark Boucher, and steady captain Faf du Plessis in the days and weeks leading up to the first Test match at Centurion.

“Bounce-back ability” is meant to describe that South African spirit of never giving up when the going is tough. It’s about the ability to bring the fight when the obvious and natural instinct would be to take flight.

Given what South African cricket has gone through in the last month, and indeed the past few years, there would have been many hoping the Proteas would be able to find this “bounce-back ability” when they needed it the most against England. And they did. Emphatically.

“We’ve been in situations where we’ve come off the back of things that haven’t been too good in the game of cricket. One thing I know about South Africans is that they are resilient, and they’ve got that bounce-back ability. And for me it’s about how to get that bounce back ability into the heads of the players as soon as possible,” Boucher said on the eve of the Boxing Day Test.

The former wicketkeeper/batsman, who played 147 Tests, inherited a core group of Proteas players who were riddled by self-doubt and insecurity over the state of their profession, and their own game. They hadn’t won a Test match in nearly a year, and public opinion towards South African cricket was beginning to sour. The victory at Centurion would have sweetened the troubled waters that flow between South African cricket’s governing body, the players, and their unions. At least until the next Cricket South Africa board meeting.

The first Test was won by a Proteas team that displayed a collective refusal to lose at their tradition fortress, Centurion. The collective desire to win was made up of a few personal moments of triumph among Proteas players who in the run-up to this Test series will have had doubts strewn all over their minds.

Boucher, a seasoned scrapper for the Proteas for nearly 15 years, would have spurred on players like Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj to dig deep within themselves and find that special “bounce-back ability”, that moment to swing the match in their team’s favour.

De Kock’s knock of 95 was worth double in the context of South Africa’s first innings of 284 and the match. It will go down in the stats as a half-century scored, but it enabled the Proteas to gain a sizeable lead, once England were bowled out for 181 in response.

Boucher would have whispered the words of freedom to QDK before he went out to bat, allowing the free-flowing left-hander to play a brave and natural innings of 14 boundaries at a strike rate of over 74. His innings, and eight catches in total, was the difference between the two sides in the end and deservedly earned De Kock the player-of-the-match award.

Boucher, in a quote that will now go down in history as one of the greats said of QDK: “You can have one Quinny in your side, you probably can’t have eleven.”

The coach went on to explain. “You don’t want to hold a guy like him back because he can take the game away from the opposition very, very quickly.”

During the traditional captain’s press conference ahead of the Test, captain Faf du Plessis said: “We’re normally a team that has a very good bounce-back ability. We play our best cricket when our backs are against the wall. We show a lot of resilience to fight.”

The Proteas have spent the most part of 2019 with their backs against inhospitable walls. For the majority of 2019, they couldn’t muster the ability to fight back, to draw a line under their last defeat and say “enough”. For months they wandered aimlessly, incapable of finding that elusive “bounce-back ability”.

Keshav Maharaj, who was expensive in the Test series in India before getting injured, would have come into this match with some uncertainty. He had been used primarily in a supporting role by Du Plessis, who had the luxury for once of having a decent seam bowling attack which included Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Vernon Philander and Dwaine Pretorius.

But the spinner proved his worth as a genuine game-changer once again by getting the crucial breakthrough wicket of the dangerous Ben Stokes. He dug deep to get Stokes’ wicket. This was Stokes, the BBBC Sports Personality of the Year. This is Ben (steal-a-Test-match-from-under-your-nose) Stokes, the man who almost single-handedly won England the Cricket World Cup and pulled off a phenomenal win in the Third Ashes Test match to level that series. And after being hit for three spanking boundaries of the second over of his spell, Maharaj was in desperate need of some “bounce-back ability”.

He pulled it off in the 73rd over of England’s second innings, producing a 90km/h delivery that darted through and forced the left-handed Stokes to edge the ball onto his wicket. At 204/4 it was the breakthrough South Africa desperately needed. They were back on top.

Anrich Nortje, who has taken just one wicket in two Tests in India, would have been hungry to show his worth in this first Test. In the first innings, he claimed the wickets of Jonny Bairstow and the dangerous Stokes in one spell. His bowling in this match was filled with fire and purpose. In the second innings he snagged more crucial wickets; that of England opener Rory Burns and captain Joe Root, before exacting revenge on England quick Jofra Archer to seal the victory.

But it was Nortje’s battling nightwatchman innings of 40 runs that will go down in the record books as one of the most crucial in this match. His 71-run partnership with debutant Rassie van der Dussen ate up valuable time at the crease and proved demoralising to an ailing England team.

Kagiso Rabada had a difficult 2019 by his own lofty standards – a result of too much mileage on his youthful body and mountains of pressure on his young mind. This Test may prove to be a turning point for Rabada though, as he reflects on a match where he only started returning to his fearsome best, and still ended up as the leading wicket-taker. This match may have reignited a fire that seemed to have been extinguished during a poor World Cup and India series.

KG is not back to his best yet, but he made a giant stride in the right direction at Centurion. His dismissal of Bairstow, Jos Buttler, and Sam Curran ripped the heart out of England’s resistance in the second innings. Again, Boucher and bowling coach Charl Langveldt would have fanned those flames of aggression from Rabada.

Many will feel that Vernon Philander should reconsider his retirement from international cricket, based on his performance at Centurion. The 34-year-old all-rounder appears to have plenty left to offer South African cricket, even in the twilight of his playing career. Like a fine wine, Philander has aged with steady legs for the fight. His bowling in this first Test match set the tone for what was to be a disciplined and direct approach by the Proteas attack.

Philander’s figures of 4/16, including eight maiden overs, sucked the life out of the England batters until they succumbed for just 181 all out. The 34-year-old’s contribution to this Test match was underlined with a sublime and thoughtful 46 off 60 balls as South Africa stretched their lead in the second innings.

Philander’s legacy within the current Proteas will be his ability to back himself, despite fierce criticism and doubt over the years. It will be a legacy the younger players would do well to treasure. Philander’s calm fighting spirit was a feature of the Proteas’ performance in Centurion.

Van der Dussen has been labeled an “experienced debutant” by pundits on account of having played more than 100 first-class matches, before making his Test debut, at the age of 30 years and 321 days.

Van der Dussen arrived on the Test scene off the back of impressive limited-overs performances for the Proteas already under his belt, and he played with a composure that observers have become accustomed to. His brisk 51 off 67 balls at a strike rate of 76.10 is an early measure of his adaptability to the long game. He likes to score quickly but is prepared to hang around if necessary.

The battle for the number five spot between Temba Bavuma and Van der Dussen will be one to watch over the next few Tests for more than cricketing reasons. Van der Dussen has taken his opportunity while Bavuma is injured. On current form, Boucher would have to pick last week’s debutant. It’s a tough call to make without offending anyone, but Boucher is brave enough to make it.

In varying ways, individuals in the Proteas team displayed the “bounce-back ability” needed to win the first Test match and begin the road to recovery on the field of play. The new year brings with it potential for Boucher, Du Plessis, and the team to demonstrate more of this ability to scrap it out with the opposition, show some desire and seize the big moments.

The recovery project has only just begun for the Proteas, and though one victory at a favoured venue doesn’t make a summer, the cricket is beginning to heat up again.

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