With an innings defeat in Ranchi, the South African cricket team matched a dubious record.
They have now lost five consecutive Tests for the first time in over a decade since back-to-back series defeats against Australia in 2006.
World number one Test side India were too strong for the visiting South Africans and their bad calendar year continued.
They would want to end the year on a high with a victory over England on the Boxing Day test and enter 2020 positively.
Their camp has remained upbeat, but their 2019 slump can’t be ignored.
The South Africans outclassed Pakistan in all formats at the start of the year.
The team was expected to humble Sri Lanka and continue their build-up to the 2019 World Cup.
Kusal Perera played one of the greatest knocks of all time in Durban to shock the hosts in the first Test, and Kusal Mendis’s gritty knock to win the second Test made the Islanders the first Asian country to win a Test series in South Africa.
South Africa dominated Sri Lanka in the ODI and T20I series that followed, but their momentum had taken a hit.
The Test series defeat was viewed as one of the worst in South Africa’s history, but its fallout broke more hearts.
A Kolpak deal tempted another of South Africa’s talented players as pacer Duanne Olivier took “possibly the most difficult decision” and left for greener pastures.
He rejected a two year proposed Cricket South Africa contract and joined English county side Yorkshire.
Olivier was the best bowler of South African summer, having taken 31 wickets in five Tests.
He had replaced Kyle Abbott, who had chosen to leave South Africa and joined Hampshire in 2017.
Both Olivier and Abbott made statements to commit themselves to the South African national side just before their departures.
Untimely injuries to Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada just before the World Cup during the Indian Premier League did little to help their cause.
The team appeared unconvincing heading into the tournament.
The AB de Villiers fiasco did not help their cause and decisions, such as preferring Hashim Amla over Reeza Hendricks, can be debated even today.
Still, the team featured several talented cricketers, but the Proteas could not perform to their potential.
They finished seventh out of ten teams, with seven points of possible 18, tied on points with Bangladesh and just above West Indies and Afghanistan.
Their match against West Indies got washed out, and South Africa defeated Afghanistan and Sri Lanka before upsetting the mighty Australians.
At 387 runs in eight innings, skipper Faf du Plessis was their highest scorer while all-rounder Chris Morris emerged as their highest wicket-taker (13 wickets in seven innings).
Right-handed batsman Rassie van der Dussen was the team’s breakout star, with 310 runs in six innings at an average of 62.
Retirements of Dale Steyn, Jean-Paul Duminy and Imran Tahir, and a possible Hashim Amla Kolpak deal increased their headaches.
When South Africa’s India tour started in September, they were expected to make the most of their resources to put up a fight.
The T20I series ended in a 1-1 draw and opener Aiden Markram and middle-order batsman Temba Bavuma registered runs in the practice match.
Keshev Maharaj bowled well for three wickets and the team seemed set for its first assignment in the International Test Championship.
What followed was humiliation.
South Africans did not only lose the series 3-0, they were humbled.
Team India won the first Test by 203 runs in Vizag.
The victory margin increased in the following Tests, by an inning and 137 runs in Pune and an inning and 202 runs in Ranchi.
The Proteas’ batsmen couldn’t get going and their bowlers lost the wicket-taking boots.
Their top scorer Dean Elgar scored 232 runs in six innings, with 160 in the first inning of the first Test, and their only other centurion, Quinton de Kock, scored 156 runs in six innings with the top score of 111.
Their only other batsmen who could cross the 100 run mark in the series were du Plessis (142 runs with 2 50s at 23.66 in 6 innings) and Maharaj (103 runs with one 50 at 25.75 in four innings).
Rabada, with seven wickets in four innings at 40.71 finished as their highest wicket taker, while Maharaj, with six wickets in three innings, came second.
In comparison, man of the series Rohit Sharma scored 529 runs in four innings at 132.25 with three centuries and the highest score of 212.
Mayank Agarwal, at 340 runs in four innings at 85 and the highest score of 215, was the second highest scorer, and captain Virat Kohli scored 317 runs in four innings with the highest score of an unbeaten 254.
Both Ajnikya Rahane (216 runs in four innings) and Ravindra Jadeja (212 runs in four innings), also crossed the 200-run mark.
Among bowlers Ravichandran Ashwin with 15 wickets in six innings at 25.26 was the highest wicket-taker of the series, and Mohammad Shami and Ravindra Jadeja took 13 wickets each in six innings at an average of 14.76 and 30.69 respectively to become second-highest wicket-takers.
Ishant Sharma had uncharacteristic low returns of two wickets in four innings while in the absence of Jasprit Bumrah pacer Umesh Yadav raised his stock to an all time high with 11 wickets in four innings at 12.18.
Overall, Indians took all 60 wickets up for grabs, 32 by spinners and 26 by pacers and the South African bowlers could only take 25 wickets, ten by pacers and 15 by spinners.
The difference of 35 was the highest ever in their Test history.
With India at its ruthless best, and players such as Markram, Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn and Dane Piedt failing to perform, the series was the most disastrous for the South Africans since their readmission to cricket.
For the first time, they lost two consecutive Tests by an innings since 1937 and they averaged 23.01 with the bat and 76.92 with the ball.
In the series, South Africa’s average partnership for the top five wickets was 17.10, compared to India’s 91.05, and their last five partnerships averaged 28.93, just under 12 runs more than top five.
The way forward
With Amla and de Villiers’ retirements among other players, the team is getting rebuilt.
Though they were outclassed, there were a few positives that came out of the series for the visitors.
Rabada bowled well in sections and improved with every test, Elgar and du Plessis performed better than their 2015 tour and in Maharaj, South Africa seem to have found a good player.
So far, in 42 innings from 27 Tests, Maharaj has taken 100 wickets, including a 9/129 in one inning against Sri Lanka at the Sinhalese Sports Club at Colombo last year.
The team needs to learn from their India experience and keep taking steps in the right direction.
A few of them include:
1. Be bold, be ruthless
South Africans looked low on confidence and out of their depth since day one of the first Test.
They were not the favourites to topple the world’s number one Test side, but at world number three, they had good enough players to make the series competitive.
In Markram, they had one of the best batsmen aged 25 or less, in Rabada, they had one of the ‘fab three bowlers’ in the world (alongside Australian Pat Cummins and Indian Jasprit Bumrah) and in de Kock, there was a talented wicketkeeper-batsman alongside skipper du Plessis.
None of them performed to their potential – Markram looked out of his depth, du Plessis looked frustrated, Rabada didn’t bowl to his potential and apart from a century in the first innings of the series, de Kock looked uncertain.
Barring Maharaj and third Test debutant Zubayr Hamza, nobody left India with an increased stock as a cricketer.
Coming off a ten home series winning streak, India were always the favourites, but the apathetic performance by the visitors made it easier for the Indians than it should have been.
2. Read the conditions better and attack the opposition batsmen
Apart from an envious home record, another positive to come out of Kohli’s stint is the Indian team’s much-improved performances overseas as compared to his predecessors.
A reason for that is in the last three years the pitches in India have not only assisted spinners but also seamers.
It has not only helped Indian cricketers to perform better in overseas conditions but also led India to have one of the best pace-bowling contingents in the world.
Learning from their 2015 mistake, South Africans came better prepared to play Indian spinners.
Ashwin, Jadeja and third Test debutant Shahbaz Nadeem were impressive but had to work hard to break through the visitors’ batting.
When Kohli focused more on spinners in the first inning of the Vizag test, Elgar and de Kock scored centuries, du Plessis had two 50s in the series and third Test debutant Zubayr Hamza scored an attacking 50 in the first inning of the Ranchi test.
It was the Indian pacers Yadav and Shami who looked unplayable at times.
Both averaged less than 15 and Yadav tied with West Indian great Courtney Walsh to take three wickets in last five completed Test innings in India.
The pace duo made a meal of the South African top order.
Shami relied on swing, bounce and discipline, while Yadav’s ball skidded and he extracted reverse swing to bother the visitors.
In comparison, the South African pacers looked toothless.
Rabada struggled in first two Tests, but improved in the third Test, Vernon Philander frustrated, Lungi Ngidi didn’t look completely fit and out of pace and Anrich Nortje was just good in pieces.
The South African pacers looked slower than their Indian counterparts and failed to attack the stumps or bowl on the fourth stump line.
When they bowled in the right places, they bothered Indian batsmen.
In the third Test, at 39/3, South Africa held aces, but Rahane and Rohit Sharma dug in and turned the tide.
Besides this, when South African pacers held India tight their spinners let India go away.
Maharaj worked very hard for decent returns, and Dane Piedt and Senuran Muthysamy failed to justify their selections.
For their future assignments, South Africans should attack their opposition and read the conditions better to win the matches.
3. Be patient with Zubayr Hamza, Temba Bavuma and Theunis de Bruyn
At 35, du Plessis remains South Africa’s best batsman, de Kock is top class, Elgar is a quality Test batsman and Markram is tipped to take over the helm from du Plessis in future.
However, not every Proteas batsman enjoys these kinds of luxuries.
With an average of around 50 at both provincial and franchise level, Hamza is one of the top performers in the South African cricket.
He looked good for his 62 in Ranchi’s first innings with secured defence and a solid technique.
Markram’s unfortunate self-inflicted injury opened the doors for Hamza, and he should continue to be a part of the South African middle-order in future.
For de Bruyn and Bavuma, matters are a bit complicated.
In the India tour, de Bruyn scored 82 runs in five innings at an average of 16.40 and highest scores of 30, and Bavuma scored 96 runs in six innings at an average age of 16 and the highest score of 38.
Bavuma’s most memorable moment of the series was being a stand-in skipper for the toss alongside du Plessis before the third Test, and de Bruyn came as a concussion substitute for Elgar in the second innings of the same match.
Currently in the state of rebuilding and struggling for returns, South Africa may get desperate for results, but their best bet may be to stay put for the time being.
De Bruyn is considered as one of the most naturally gifted South African cricketers and had scored a century in the same match against Sri Lanka on a spin-friendly pitch.
With Hashim Amla and de Villiers’ presence in the side, de Bruyn had to be patient since his debut in 2017 in New Zealand and South Africa needs to retain him until at least the England tour of South Africa later this year before taking any decision.
Trust from the cricket board and the captain can help de Bruyn deliver on the potential he possesses.
If he is a talent, Bavuma has been a workhorse.
With just over 1800 runs in his Test career at an average of less than 32, his numbers don’t do the justice to his batting, however, Bavuma has scored over 7500 runs in first-class cricket.
He takes pride in representing South Africa and his experience of playing international cricket for just under five years can be an asset for the South African team currently in the process of rebuilding.
He needs runs quickly, but with the lack of first-class players (perhaps except Rassie van der Dussen) ready to step up to the international cricket and occupy middle order, omitting Bavuma may prove to be disastrous.
4. Keep faith in the coaching staff and the captain
Otis Gibson was not retained after the disappointing ODI World Cup campaign in England, and Enoch Nkwe took over the helm as the team director.
Still only 36, he is young, ambitious and a product of South African first-class cricket, formerly representing Gauteng and Lions.
He is keen to stay in his role and has shown pedigree in the Proteas domestic circuit, by helping the Jozi Stars to win the inaugural Mzansi Super League T20 before guiding the Lions to win the Four-Day series and the CSA T20 Challenge.
Another one facing the pressure in South Africa is captain du Plessis.
He wants to remain the captain, is the most experienced cricketer in the side and one of the leading batsmen in the world.
He had an underwhelming Test series with 142 runs in six innings at an average of 23.66 and the highest score of 64.
Maintaining stability is one of the most important things when a team gets rebuilt, and it would be shortsighted to sack Nkwe and du Plessis after one failure.
South Africa should avoid temptation and refrain from taking any rash decisions.
5. Improve the domestic structure and make cricketer financially stronger
In his first press conference after returning to South Africa, du Plessis lamented that South Africa’s domestic cricket is not good enough to produce quality international cricketers.
He said the national team was not adequately prepared for the retirements of Morne Morkel, de Villiers, Amla and Steyn over last 18 months.
The Kolpak system has not helped their case either.
Since Claude Henderson became the first player to be signed under Kolpak Rule in 2004 by Leicestershire, 44 South African cricketers have turned their backs to the national side, some of them being Lance Klusener, Ashwell Prince, Colin Ingram, Richard Levi and Rilee Rossouw.
In 2007, du Plessis himself signed a Kolpak deal with Lancashire but returned to South Africa when new rules came in 2010 and made his ODI debut in 2011.
With the imminent Brexit, Kolpak agreements could be in danger, and du Plessis argued that it will help South African cricket in “tremendous amounts” to retain talented cricketers.
Another step to reduce the Kolpak leaking may be making cricket in South Africa financially more viable.
As stated by Zimbabwe’s Brendan Taylor, who signed for Nottinghamshire after 2015 World Cup and Abbott, signing multi-year contracts helps the players to have a settled financial life for themselves and their families.
Cricket South Africa needs to ensure that their players get paid well, so they’re ready to commit to the national team on a long-term basis.