There are few tours that stir the passions in quite the same way as a visit by the South Africans. For those of us of a certain vintage, over 30 perhaps, only the Ashes gets the pulses racing more than a visit from the Proteas.
With the exception of a largely forgettable series in 2017, every tour by the rainbow nation since readmission has been intense, enthralling and usually quite bruising for England and its captains in particular.
Mike Atherton was caught with dirt in his pocket at Lords in 1994, before standing awe struck at slip two games later as Devon Malcom condemned the tourists to “history” at the Oval. In 1998, no longer captain but still the rock of England’s batting, he stood firm against the fire and fury of Alan Donald in one of the great duels in Test history. Other England captains have not come out of tours by South Africa quite so well however, and this is largely down to the force of personality of one man.
Nathan Lyon once spoke of wanting to end England players careers before an Ashes series but make no mistake, this is the series that really ends careers. Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss, arguably England’s three most successful captains of the modern era, all fell on their sword after coming up against the Protea Fire and one man in particular, the granite hewn colossus that is Graeme Smith, South Africa’s captain for 12 years and three tours of this land.
In 2003, a then 22-year-old Smith took on a South African team that was in disarray following a chaotic exit from a home World Cup and began to ruthlessly shape them into his own, indomitable image. Nasser Hussain was so underwhelmed by the young man standing before him that he referred to him as “whatshisname” in the press conference before the first Test. Over two days and 277 runs, Smith repeatedly rammed that insult back down Hussain’s throat. By the end of the drawn game Hussain had resigned and Smith had claimed the scalp of his first England captain. The rest of the series was a pulsating affair as Michael Vaughan led his men in a fightback that ended in a fine win at the Oval, a drawn series and the seeds of the great Ashes triumph two years later.
Five years later it was Smith again defying England with an all time great innings of 154 not out at Edgbaston in a South African victory that prompted Vaughan’s resignation.
Fast forward to 2012 and perhaps the most infamous incident of all as “Textgate” dominated front and back pages and cricket journalists turned into amateur Sherlocks to investigate the content of Kevin Pietersen’s mid series texts to the South African team and to ascertain who indeed was the mysterious author of the “KP Genius” Twitter account. The furore led, indirectly, to Strauss’ resignation at the end of the series as Graeme Smith claimed one last scalp before his retirement two years later.
In recent years South African cricket has been something of a mess, with corruption and resignations at board level leading to government intervention in 2021. The national team’s image has also been damaged by accusations of racism. The testimonies of Paul Adams and Ashwell Price as to the treatment they received in the Protea dressing room have cast a shadow over many of the team that played under Smith in the same way that the Yorkshire racism crisis has made us question some of the heroes of 2005.
These days it appears the present always casts a shadow over the past, however glorious we wish that past to be.
Current coach Mark Boucher was charged by Cricket South Africa after being the subject of many of the more serious allegations but all charges were dramatically dropped in May soon after Paul Adams indicated his unwillingness to testify against his former teammate.
Smith himself was investigated for racism in the early part of this year but was found innocent by two independent investigations. It is hard to believe that the furore did not contribute to his decision not to reapply for his job as Director of Cricket at CSA when his contract expired. It is indeed a pity as one feels South African cricket needs its strongest leader now more than ever.
The team that will walk out at Lord’s tomorrow morning may not have the strength of previous sides to tour the country but it will still contain players to thrill English fans, including Kagiso Rabada, one of the finest fast bowlers in the world at the moment, and the standard bearer for the transformation of cricket in the country and the efforts to produce more Black African cricketers.
In Dean Elgar, the Proteas possess another captain in the Smith mould, who will not be afraid to go toe to toe with England’s players.
I hope fervently for a competitive series as Test cricket needs a strong South Africa. Bazball alone will not revive the Test game, particularly if the only competitive series are played between England, India, and Australia. To survive and thrive, the game needs its other great nations feasting at the same table as the big three. That is why, despite my love for what Stokes and McCullum are doing for our game, I will be hoping for a South African victory this summer. One feels both the Test game and the rainbow nation need it.