When Bangladesh first cited the opportunity to make history in South Africa, some scoffed at the idea that head coach Russell Domingo’s side could seriously threaten a Proteas team that had just overcome India at the height of the summer season.
That scoffing was silenced in the week that Bangladesh emphatically secured the one-day series that preceded the Test matches starting on 31 March. The Tigers have found their roar, and they are relishing the prospect of adding a Test series to their 50-over heist. Under Domingo, The Tigers recently won a Test on New Zealand soil. They have a growing belief in themselves, and recent events in South Africa have only emboldened that.
The Proteas, for better or for worse, long ago vowed to never stand in the way of players participating in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Thus the Test side will not have Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi, Rassie van der Dussen, Aiden Markram or the increasingly impressive Marco Jansen in their ranks. That is a hammer blow to a side that is still trying to gain the consistency for which they used to be renowned.
“The loss of the IPL players is not ideal,” Victor Mpitsang, the convenor of Cricket South Africa (CSA) selectors, said recently. “But we back the CSA system, its evergrowing pipeline and, most of all, the players we have selected,” he added.
Mpitsang has to say that. Even if he is silently fuming at being handed a butter knife to go to a gunfight, he simply has to pick what’s available and trust that those players will be up to what is now a considerable challenge.
“Every member of the team is selected based on the excellence that they have shown over an extended period of time, and there is no better opportunity for them than now to show us what they have to offer the Proteas on this highly anticipated occasion,” Mpitsang added.
Window of opportunity
The compromise is not a decision that was made in his time, but it is one he has to live with now. Taking away much of the topsoil in any Test side is hard to stomach, especially when it is not owing to injury. This was a financial compromise CSA committed to years ago, and the implications for Mptisang and the coaching staff are beyond their control.
Domingo, a former Proteas men’s coach himself, has also had to deal with the consequences of players making choices that consider life beyond bat and ball. But not to this extent. Not this severely. Not this suddenly.
And so a window of opportunity has been left ajar for the visitors. The good news for Bangladesh doesn’t end there either. The venues where the two-Test series will be played couldn’t be better suited to their attack. St George’s Park in Gqeberha and Kingsmead in Durban have, over the years, become South Africa’s ode to the subcontinent. They are low and they are slow. They encourage spin, and both surfaces offer little to the traditional pace battery on which South Africa rely.
Well, whatever pace was left behind by the IPL freight train.
There has never been a more reasonable argument for the Proteas to employ two frontline spinners in their attack. Simon Harmer has come back to South Africa from English county cricket and immediately made an impression. His wickets helped the Titans secure the red-ball title, but he didn’t get a chance to play in New Zealand.
Keshav Maharaj, the incumbent slow-bowling option, remains central to Test captain Dean Elgar’s plans. He maintains control and exerts pressure, allowing the rest of the attack to rotate on the other end.
Harmer is a very different beast – a spinner who operates with the attacking intent of a man who bowls at 140km/h. He spins the ball powerfully and recently passed 700 wickets in first-class cricket. Given that his coaches have had to adapt on the spot, they could do far worse than to go against the South African grain and pick a man who has rebuilt his red-ball career by consistently going for the jugular. His exploits for Essex are the stuff of legend, and a return to the Test arena is surely the next logical step.
A reunion on home soil
If South Africa do pick Harmer to play, he will have the same homecoming that Domingo will have in the second Test. Before he went to England, Harmer was at the Warriors. Indeed, his formative years were spent under Domingo and he had left South African cricket with his blessing.
The reunion will be a meeting of paths that were interlocked for a long time, went separate ways – but have met again on the international stage. Both their stories are a consequence of South Africa’s ever-changing seasons and cricketing reasons.
Together before, they now stand on opposing sides. Domingo has a chance firing a shot to those who looked at his coaching credentials with disdain. He still maintains that his race was not run as Proteas coach. He has unfinished business and now has the opportunity to put that argument squarely in front of his former employers. And he is armed with a Bangladesh side that is hellbent on joining Sri Lanka as the only subcontinent team to ever win a Test series on these shores.
That Sri Lankan reversal in 2018-2019 was on the back of a slow start to a series by the Proteas. They have made it an unhappy habit. They did remarkably to turn their last series in New Zealand around after being embarrassed in the first Test. That was done with many of the IPL absentees playing key roles, not least a rejuvenated Rabada. South Africa can ill afford a slow start in Durban, scene of the incredible match-winning knock by Kusal Perera in early 2019.
That was against a stacked South African attack. It shocked the world. Domingo will know that South Africa have their mental demons in Durban, while his own side is playing with absolutely nothing to lose. That makes them a very dangerous prospect. Mark Boucher’s men keep looking like they have turned a corner, but then give shambolic displays such as the one-day series against Bangladesh.
Consistently, South Africa have shown that they can have a dismal day with bat or ball. That will be in the back of their minds regardless of the team they put up in the first Test. And that very same thought will be at the forefront of Domingo’s mind.
Bangladesh will bank on South Africa having at least one off day in each Test match. Should it happen, making history will be possible for the Asian side that had not won a series on these shores for 20 years.
Now, they are eyeing two in a row. And no one is scoffing at their chances.