They are a far cry from the team that went unbeaten for nine years on the road between 2006 and 2015, but South Africa’s victory in the second Test in Christchurch was a reminder of their away abilities. Not only did they beat reigning World Test Champions New Zealand, but they also did so at a venue they had never played before this tour, and where conditions are considered to be heavily stacked in favor of the local team.
New Zealand had lost just one in ten Test matches at Hagley Oval prior to this Test, and of their eight wins, three had come by one inning. On a seamer-friendly surface, they’ve been known to take down the opposition cheaply, then bat as if they’re operating on completely different ground. The first test was a good example.
Despite all this, Dean Elgar went against the grain by opting to strike first and including Keshav Maharaj, the XI’s only specialist spinner, in anticipation of the deteriorating pitch. History suggested that Elgar made a mistake, but the past five days have proven him right.
And Kagiso Rabada explained that the decision was made on the basis of evidence, not the reputation of the pitch.
“This wicket was much drier [than in the first Test], to look at it with the naked eye and there was a lot less grass on it,” he said after South Africa squared the series. “When you walked on it, the tips have almost sunk in. This tells you that it’s going to be a bit slow. We knew that as the test progressed it would get drier and the tracks would be created for Keshav to exploit. It was the thought. In the end, it was the right decision.”
South Africa scored their first total of over 300 batters since April 2018, and after that Maharaj took four wickets – including three in the second inning – to justify all of Elgar’s decisions and underline the ability of the South Africa to come back after a heavy defeat in the first test. After that loss, no one – not coach Mark Boucher or Elgar himself or any of the players who were highlighted for the media – could explain why the team was so low in energy, and they didn’t nor are they given priority to find out.
“There was no need to dwell on how badly we played,” said Rabada. “While we needed to acknowledge the mistakes we made, we still needed to put game plans in place to make sure we adapted as quickly as possible. It was about understanding where we went wrong and offering game plans and tactics, and also mentally coming back and winning Test 2. It was about waking up and rocking, and executing game plans.
One of the main things South Africa needed was a better start with the bat, and a 111-run opening stand between Elgar and Sarel Erwee in the opening innings gave them that. They also needed players to score centuries, and Erwee and Kyle Verreynne ticked that box as well. Their hitter showed depth and grit, which allowed the bowling offense to operate with a degree of freedom and natural aggression.
Taken together, it was one of the most comprehensive performances South Africa have had in recent times, not least because it followed their second-biggest defeat of all time.
“If you look at previous teams, the word that always fits us best is resilience,” he said. “It was never easy to beat us in a test, and we proved it again.”
In the end, New Zealand were also unable to beat South Africa due to the momentum which Rabada himself seized with a 34-ball 47 with the bat as well as two wickets in his opening spell in the second inning, which set the visitors up for a tie-winning streak. Along with Marco Jansen, Rabada is the co-leading wicket-taker in Tests so far this year, but he has cautioned against overestimating his current form.
“It’s very rare that you feel your best,” he said. “It’s about adapting and trusting your strengths, and trying to do everything you can. You try to create your own luck with hard work and tactical thinking, and let the rest happen. produce. It’s about trying to stick with the process and keep refining.”
This is what South Africa as a unit has been saying for over two years, as it has rebuilt, stumbled and rebuilt again under Boucher. Their record is not what it used to be, but there are “good signs for the future”, as Rabada said.
And good signs from the past too. Since March 2017, New Zealand have lost just three of 23 home Tests, including two against South Africa. Since the start of 2021, only Pakistan (five) and India (four) have won more away Tests than South Africa, with both sides having played more Tests in the same period.
At a time when winning on the road is getting harder and harder, South Africa are showing they are among the teams that can still do it, which bodes well for their next overseas posting – to England this winter.