I can’t believe I’m doing this again. Despite a long history of talking up the Proteas cricket team prior to an ICC tournament, only to see them crash and burn, I’m here again with boundless hope and beaming optimism about them.
I have suffered so much over the years as my expectations have been met with tragedy, but I seem to pick myself up again and again, returning to the pain that many deem rather predictable.
This isn’t a 2017 Champions Trophy preview, though. It’s a tad early for one of those. Instead, this is a post taking stock of what is an infectious new wave of positivity defining South Africa’s limited overs team right now.
After 12 straight ODI wins, a slight hiccup, then another emphatic win, this current team is hotter than Preity Zinta back when she was, ah, hot. They currently sit as the No.1 ranked ODI team* in the world, but there is something more important here than stats and rankings.
They are a team that seem to have created their own identity, an identity that the rest of South Africa’s sporting teams can only dream of having; an identity corporate sponsors can only wish they were a part of. I am, of course, talking about how they haven’t just addressed the difficult race issues that hang over every sporting team in the country; they seem to have turned it around into a very real positive.
This team doesn’t seem to be scared by the past, be it through the political lens or the result/choke lens. They just seem excited about the future. The senior players appear to be embracing the concept of having to constantly fight for their places in a competitive setup and the youngsters coming in have a desire to not just make up the numbers, but rather drive the team forward.
Seeing a guy like Andile Phehlukwayo, at the age of 20, coolly standing with AB de Villiers in the middle and guiding his team to victory when ‘steadier’ heads had crumbled before him illustrates this well. Phehlukwayo isn’t worrying about what other players would have done before him, how his team has historically crumbled in such situations. He is treating it as his time to shine, and nobody is going to take that away from him.
We saw a similar scene recently when the youngster strode out to the crease to partner David Miller in chasing down a seemingly impossible total against Australia in Durban. There is no impossible for players like Phehlukwayo. He is there to create new legacies, and the potential is astonishing.
Speaking of 20 year olds, when Kagiso Rabada broke onto the scene the same thing happened, only it was more difficult for him. With the Proteas bowling lineup falling to pieces, literally, he became the spearhead when others would have had the luxury of just being the youngster. Forget about that, all he wanted to do was break new ground, and he did so becoming an international force in no time at all.
This is only the very beginning too. Recently, a 20 year old called Lungi Ngidi burst onto the international scene terrorizing the Sri Lankans in a T20 series that gave the world a brief snapshot of what he is capable of.
The most difficult time for talented youngsters to realize their talent is once they leave school, and go from being big deals against kids their own age to suddenly having to compete against men in various stages of their prime. The fact that the three abovementioned players have made an impact straight off the bat just tells you what sort of talent South Africa has coming through.
Add that to a consistently solid base of hardened professionals who make up the core of this team, and you have that all important mix that every team is looking for. Naturally, this also creates that solid platform where newcomers can (and often need to) hit the ground running.
Sure, the Vernon Philander incident at the last ICC World Cup – where he was brought in, out of form, to replace the in-form Kyle Abbott – was regrettable. The ensuing Kolpak deal signed by Abbott, who wanted to safeguard his future by going overseas, was also unfortunate. But this is in the past, and the new talent coming through is looking to make amends.
South Africa’s sporting future is always going to be a little more unique than other countries, but on this current path there is a lot less to worry about than before. They may still be a question mark or two around the seam attack going into the Champions Trophy. Whatever the final solution though, the Proteas will be going into a major limited overs tournament with something a little more special than before.
So special that me and my continually shattered nerves are genuinely excited again.
*At the time of writing
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