“Bring it,” is South Africa’s message to Australia as they head Down Under in search of a fourth, successive away series win against the opponents.
It’s been more than four years since they last played
each other, in the series that became known for the sandpaper-gate scandal but also ranks as one of South Africa’s biggest successes in the last decade. It was the first time they claimed a series win against Australia at home since readmission. The residue from that series litters the entrance hall to this one and there’s every expectation that the action will take place as much off the field as on it.
“Because we are playing in their home conditions, it’s going to be pretty feisty,” Dean Elgar
, South Africa’s Test captain, said ahead of their departure on Thursday. “The individuals they have within their squad are pretty brash and bold – in your face kind of characters and that can work in our favour. I think that plays into our hands. We enjoy that confrontation as a group and we manage it pretty well. We’ve got calm heads around that. If they want to be in your face, it’s fine. I definitely don’t shy away from that and I will be encouraging the players not to shy away from that, because I think that’s when South Africans bring out their best.”
Elgar’s team, however, is not in the same state as Faf du Plessis’ was in 2018. Although they presently sit second on the World Test Championship (WTC) table
, they are closer to the 2019 outfit that toured India with an interim team director at the helm, who was being sent on his first international assignment to one of the most difficult places to play Tests, and an impending administrative crisis looming. This 2022 side also has a temporary coach, who will make his debut. He too is taking South Africa to a tough place and there’s no indication of when permanent appointments will be made. But there is one difference. Elgar revealed that he requested Malibongwe Maketa to take over
from Mark Boucher and that he and Enoch Nkwe (the team director from 2019 who is now director of cricket) are on the same page.
“Growing up as a kid, you’d always wake up for these Boxing Day Test matches Down Under and you don’t mind losing a few hours’ sleep. Now we’ve got 16 players who are going to experience it first-hand.”
“Mali is one of the coaches I asked our director (Nkwe) to try and get in to be interim. I’m glad I got that one right,” Elgar said. “It’s nice to have a DOC that has got cricket at heart and is backing his leadership that needs to be backed. Mali understands his role, which is going to be a supportive role, and he understands me as a cricketer, as a person and as a leader. Mali comes with quite a lot of experience. He has been around the block as long as I can remember.”
Maketa worked as head coach for the Warriors franchise in South Africa’s domestic circuit from 2015 to 2017, as Ottis Gibson’s assistant for the national side between 2017 and 2019, and most recently as the South African A coach. He was also on the tour in England earlier this year and has worked with most of the squad members in some capacity over the last decade. He is one of the few consistent presences on the South African scene, which Elgar thinks they need more than anything as the Test team evolves.
“The environment has changed drastically (since 2019) but in a good way. We’ve tried to keep our core players so the consistency has always been pretty stable. We have evolved immensely and really played good cricket in the Test arena but we are still trying to push for the consistency factor which is going to be key going into a big series,” he said.
Arguably, this is the biggest test for South Africa for at least the next three years. It’s their last three-Test series until they host Australia in 2026, a must-win if they are to reach the WTC final and their first in Australia over the festive period since 2008
. That means no-one in the current squad has played a Test at the MCG or the SCG or soaked in the atmosphere of such an occasion.
“Growing up as a kid, you’d always wake up for these Boxing Day Test matches Down Under and you don’t mind losing a few hours’ sleep,” Elgar said. “Now we’ve got 16 players who are going to experience it first-hand. It’s a childhood dream of mine to experience this. Playing a Boxing Day and a New Year’s Test in Australia – I don’t think you get bigger than that.”