“I felt someone else could do a better job,” Hashim Amla had said when he stepped down as South African Test captain in January 2016. South Africa then placed AB de Villiers at the helm when they trailed 0-1 after the second Test of the four-Test series against England. De Villiers, however, faced the same fate. He could not take South Africa over the line, and the 1-2 defeat loss put them in further misery (the only victory was in a dead-rubber Test). Then came ICC WT20 2016, bringing the Test season to a halt. South Africa did not play in the longest format for seven months.
That was not it. Fortune evaded de Villiers as well. He picked up an injury. His childhood friend Faf du Plessis replaced him at the helm for the two-Test series against New Zealand in August. Meanwhile, Pakistan levelled 2-2 in England and Misbah-ul-Haq lifted the ICC Test mace for the first time. India beat West Indies 2-0 and were all set to clinch the mace, but Pakistan regained it after the final Test at Port-of-Spain was washed off. Then Sri Lanka beat Australia 3-0 at home, while India regained the mace after they whitewashed New Zealand at home. Amidst all this, the once-top-ranked South Africa kept slipping down the ladder, without anyone taking notice. READ: South Africa topple Australia to grab No. 2 spot in ICC Test Rankings
Now, wait. Let us a turn back the clock a year ago, when they were the No. 1 team. South Africa, still under Amla, had gone to India. They lost the series 0-3. Come to think of it, the 1-2 loss against England was just another nail in the coffin.
When he missed the New Zealand series, little did de Villiers know that he will never captain his side in whites. He could not recover from his injury on time, eventually giving up his captaincy to Plessis. There, South Africa had three captains and they stuttered to No. 7 from No. 1 in a matter of a year.
South Africa were making headlines off the field as well. Their board, Cricket South Africa, announced that the team will have to feature six players of colours including two black Africans in the playing XI. This was triggered to lift the ban imposed by sports ministry to ensure they got to host ICC World T20 2018.
The better man Amla had spoken of had resigned from his post as well. Du Plessis now called the shots. His first assignment as full-time captain was the three-Test series Down Under. The start was no different. South Africa were on the back-foot once again.
Australia were 158 for 0 after bundling out South Africa for 242 at Perth. Dale Steyn, back in action after the England series, had sent David Warner back to the pavilion. But in his next over, he flared up his shoulder injury, and South Africa were one short. Steyn has never bowled again with the red ball.
However, the Steyn-less South Africa folded Australia for 244 and went on to win the first Test. Kagiso Rabada scalped 6 wickets and Vernon Philander 5 in the match. Eventually, South Africa, under du Plessis, won the series 2-1 and became the first team to beat Australia Down Under in three consecutive series since early 1990s.
They continued the winning momentum and beat Sri Lanka in a Boxing Day Test — the first of the three-Test series. South Africa eventually whitewashed Sri Lanka 3-0. From No. 7, they were suddenly No. 4.
India, the No. 1 team, had meanwhile beaten England 4-0. Australia, the No. 2 team, visited India and lost 1-2. As Australia slid down (in ratings, not rankings), the gap between them and South Africa narrowed. After gaining a 1-0 lead in second of the three-Test series against New Zealand, South Africa needed only a draw to replace Australia as the No. 2 team.
They were 80 for 5, trailing by 95 runs at end of Day Four of the final Test, struggling to save innings defeat. At the crease were du Plessis and Quinton de Kock. For them to win the series and jump up in the rankings, the onus was on the duo to save the Test. However, they did not have to gear up the final day, as rain came to their rescue with the match being called off.
From Amla to de Villiers to du Plessis, South Africa’s forms and fortune both changed. From Steyn being out due to injury to losing Kyle Abbott due to Kolpak deal, South Africa have had their share of troubles. From No. 1 to No. 7 to No. 2, South Africa have regained their lost mojo in Tests.