The Spin | South Africa can cast off turbulence to show winning identity in England

The South Africa Proteas embark on their tour of England with two primary objectives: restore the team’s tattered reputation and offer their compatriots back home a fleeting moment of joy.

That’s a line we’ll be using again. No sports team tracks along a linear progression but few oscillate between the sublime and the ridiculous quite like the Proteas. Any triumph is short-lived and only provokes more anxiety. The mountain top is nothing more than a rest stop before the perilous descent.

None of this is new. Watching South African cricket reach a turning point is akin to watching a dog spin in circles before settling down for a snooze. There have been so many evolutions, so many fresh starts, that we can assume the marketing team have rummaged in the broom closet and spruced up a pre-existing identity.

Where to start with this one? One might feasibly begin with the arrival of the Dutch colonial administrator, Jan van Riebeeck, on the shores of what is now Cape Town, in 1652. That is not meant to be facetious. If history is simply a series of falling dominoes then all South Africa’s triumphs and laments can be traced back to the violent and sudden interaction between white settlers and the Indigenous population.

Push over one domino and 369 years later Quinton de Kock, his country’s most naturally gifted batter of his generation, refuses to follow a team mandate to bend the knee at a 2021 T20 World Cup match in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

From an early age De Kock has chafed against authority. And with a mixed-race stepmother, he rankled at questions over his commitment to racial harmony. Still, it was a volatile touchpoint for fans who looked upon a team presenting a disunited front at an important juncture.

De Kock made himself unavailable for the next match but apologised for any offence caused. He explained that his decision was grounded in libertarianism, not ignorance, and that after a conversation with his captain, Temba Bavuma, he had changed his mind. But those close to the team spoke of his dissatisfaction with Cricket South Africa’s heavy-handedness. Two months later he retired from Test cricket.

It would be easy to place the blame squarely at CSA’s door. The organisation had lost all confidence and credibility under its former chief executive Thabang Moroe who oversaw a litany of reputation-damaging blunders, including the loss of the team’s title sponsor, Standard Bank, after a 22-year relationship.

The respected administrator Jacques Faul was entrusted with steadying the teetering ship. Graeme Smith was appointed director of cricket with Mark Boucher as head coach. Jacques Kallis joined as a temporary consultant. This all made cricketing sense.

But the optics were poor as a team that purports to embody a racially transformed society was now led by white men. What’s more, Boucher had elbowed out Enoch Nkwe who was serving on an interim basis after the sacking of Ottis Gibson.

Simmering tensions came to the surface last year at the Social Justice and Nation-Building hearings that exposed underlying racial schisms. The most staggering revelation came from Paul Adams. The former spinner recounted an incident where he was called “brown shit” in a fines meeting in a bastardised version of the Boney M song Brown Girl in the Ring. Boucher admitted he had taken part in this public humiliation.

No other former player has followed Boucher’s lead. For this he deserves some credit. But acknowledging a crime does not absolve you of guilt and there are many in South Africa who feel their cricket team have the wrong person at the wheel.

During the hearings Nkwe resigned as Boucher’s deputy, citing “concerns over the culture and functioning” of the team environment. This, along with Adams’s testimony, emboldened CSA to open a formal charge of racism against the coach. Neither Adams nor Nkwe were prepared to take the stand and CSA “unreservedly” withdrew its case. In another twist, Nkwe has since replaced Smith as director of cricket, assuming a position of authority above Boucher.

Most teams would balk at the idea of performing under such a cloud. Not this one. Battling against the tide is a hallmark of a group named after a flower that regenerates after seasonal wildfires. What’s more, they’ll quietly back themselves to dampen England’s newfound optimism.

Recent Test-series victories in the West Indies and at home against India are a sign the red-ball side has stumbled on a winning identity. Marshalled by the straight-talking Dean Elgar, the batting lineup is more than the sum of its parts. Bavuma’s elbow injury leaves a hole, but Keegan Petersen at No 3 has been a revelation.

The bowling unit has a claim to being the best in the world. Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje unleash thunderbolts, Marco Jansen delivers left-arm swing from a dizzying height and the presence of Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer means this Proteas attack is more varied than any previous iteration. The top-order batter Rassie van der Dussen has already challenged England’s batters to replicate their Bazball brouhaha against them.

The white-ball side are also developing well, though a reliance on David Miller’s fireworks in the middle-order is a concern. It’s a big summer too for the wrist-spinner Tabraiz Shamsi who believes he is worthy of an Indian Premier League deal.

Winning has a way of softening the discord. National insecurities can be assuaged by wickets and sixes. And as the Proteas embark on a seminal multi-format tour of England, they’ll have two primary objectives in mind.