The Australian Test team fell apart in spectacular fashion in South Africa two years ago against a Proteas side that bulged with all-time greats.
But when Australia return to South Africa early next year with a Test Championship final spot on the line, there will be no Faf du Plessis, Vernon Philander, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel or Hashim Amla.
South Africa are now weaker in Tests than they’ve been at any time since they were re-admitted to international cricket 29 years ago.
Since the sandpaper series against Australia, the Proteas have won just four of 13 Tests and this week were demolished at home by an innings and 53 runs against a weak England side brimming with rookies.
In the space of just two years, they have lost four of their greatest-ever Test cricketers to retirement – de Villiers, Steyn, Morkel and Amla. Meanwhile, two more all-time greats are about to depart, with Philander retiring after his next Test and 35-year-old captain du Plessis reportedly on the verge of quitting.
That extraordinary talent drain is even more severe when you factor in the quality bowlers they’ve lost to English county deals – Duanne Olivier (48 Test wickets at 19), Kyle Abbott (39 Test wickets at 22), Simon Harmer (20 Test wickets at 29) and Wayne Parnell (15 wickets at 27).
Australia went through a similar upheaval in 2015 when in a matter of months they lost to retirement Test regulars Michael Clarke, Ryan Harris, Brad Haddin, Chris Rogers and Shane Watson.
Not long after the Aussies had a horror run of five consecutive Test losses, starting with the humiliating 3-0 defeat in Sri Lanka, followed by two hammerings at home against South Africa.
Since that dark period, Australia have rebounded nicely, recording a 21-11 win-loss record in Tests and producing some solid series performances away from home in India, England and Bangladesh.
The difference is Australia didn’t have to cope with a secondary issue of regularly losing good first-class cricketers to Kolpak deals in the UK.
The Proteas would love to have the likes of Olivier, Abbott, Harmer, Parnell and Rilee Roussow (7,363 runs at 41 in first-class cricket) still available for Test selection. Instead they are tied to the county system. Not to mention they nearly lost Dwaine Pretorius to a similar deal, with the current Test all-rounder pulling out of a county agreement at the last minute a few weeks ago.
Olivier and Abbott made remarkable starts to their Test careers with contrasting styles. The former was an intimidating strike bowler who used the short ball to great effect, while Abbott was one of the most accurate and skillful seamers I’ve ever seen.
With Philander retiring, that pair would have slotted perfectly into the South Africa attack alongside young superstar Kagiso Rabada and left arm spinner Keshav Maharaj.
Off-spinner Harmer would have been pushing strongly to take the place of Maharaj, whose form has nosedived. Maharaj has averaged 58 with the ball across his past eight Tests, while Harmer is in the form of his life, having taken 86 wickets at 18 in the last county season.
This reduction in talent depth due to retirements and Kolpak defections was always going to pose a massive challenge to the Proteas.
Once Philander and du Plessis are gone the pressure will be enormous on Rabada and wicketkeeper-batsman Quinton de Kock, who will be carrying their bowling and batting respectively.
Philander’s rare ability to build pressure with his ceaseless accuracy earned many wickets for more dynamic quicks like Rabada.
Du Plessis, meanwhile, has been a sound captain and a key plank of his side’s top four. But his form has deserted him in the past two years, during which he has averaged just 27 in Tests.
Now it looks as though du Plessis may be about to retire from Tests. It was widely reported by major media outlets this week that the fourth Test against England will be his last on home soil.
When asked if these reports were true, du Plessis stopped short of denying them, carefully framing his response to focus on upcoming limited overs internationals duties.
“I’ve been pretty clear and consistent with the message that the T20 World Cup is the timeframe that I’m looking for,” he said, referring to the global tournament being held in Australia this October and November.
Given his waning form and the fact he turns 36 years old in July, it makes sense he would be considering retirement.
If du Plessis does soon retire from Tests that means when they host Australia next year South Africa will be missing six players who had key roles in one or both of their consecutive Test series wins over the Aussies. Du Plessis, Philander, de Villiers, Steyn, Morkel and Amla – that is a remarkable group of cricketers. Together they created one of South Africa cricket’s most glorious eras, marked by regular excellence at home and away.
Now a new generation must take over, led by Rabada and de Kock.