South Africa are a happy team again. Not just because they beat New Zealand but because they’ve rediscovered their reason.
“We’ve found our passion again and why we want to win games,” Faf du Plessis said. “The team space is good and that reflects directly on our performances.”
The reason did not get lost in the retirements of great players like Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher. It did not get lost in the complex off-field affairs that dominate every sphere of life in a country still coming to terms with its past as it lurches into the future. It did not get lost in the five Tests they lost last summer across two series. It got lost before that, at the 2015 World Cup.
“After the World Cup, we just stopped,” Dale Steyn admitted.
Literally. On the night of the semi-final, the core of the South African squad was on the floor. Steyn, du Plessis and Morne Morkel were among those that had to be helped up. Something broke that night and, as we are now discovering, it was the South African spirit. “We didn’t know why we wanted to win games. We needed something to happen,” Steyn said.
The something was the season of discontent that followed and the honest discussion that took place after that about exactly what was needed to heal, in all formats. “We felt we needed to improve again. We couldn’t rest on our laurels as the previous Test team did because with this team we are not good enough to do that yet,” du Plessis said.
The previous team – the one of Smith, Kallis and Boucher – had become so good that they managed to win, or not lose, pretty much everywhere. The current team lost to India and England and in so doing, slipped from the No. 1 they had worked so hard to earn, to No. 7. “It was very disappointing. I can’t say what it was like because I wasn’t part of the teams that lost but it is disappointing to go from 1 to 7,” Steyn, who missed six of eight Tests last season through injury, said.
The current team also knew that unless they changed their attitudes, they would not be able to change their ranking. “We had some really good discussions between ourselves. The guys took it on board. They were real mature,” du Plessis said.
They decided to work harder and work smarter. They also knew they would have their two biggest weapons back. Steyn and Philander spent the rest of last summer recovering and the winter getting ready to show they still have it.
“It will be tough for us to be at the top without the two of them,” he said. “It’s amazing to throw them the ball and know the run rate’s going to be under three and they are going to be taking wickets as well. To control the game of Test cricket, you need bowlers like them.”
But you also need back-up and South Africa have the best they could ask for in Kagiso Rabada. You also need batsmen and with du Plessis and JP Duminy returning to form, South Africa need them as well. With AB de Villiers now out injured, the line-up has proved to themselves, they can be good enough again.
“We’ve got the capabilities of transforming our team into a good team again,” du Plessis said. “We don’t rely completely on those guys – AB and Morne.”
Du Plessis knows that any more progress will be difficult without de Villiers, who should return from an elbow injury in time for the Australia ODIs at home and Tests away, and Morkel, who is nursing a back niggle and will also be back soon. “We would need them to be No. 1. If they are not there, it’s going to be a challenge,” he said.
He is even happy to hand the captaincy reins back to de Villiers, despite thriving in the role. “AB is the Test captain and I will support him fully and we can’t wait to have him back. He is a massive leader in our team. We have missed him this series,” du Plessis said.
What South Africa have not missed is the chance to start rebuilding. Even though they were weary of a one-off Test to decide the series and unsure what to expect from a winter wicket, they accepted their challenges and more importantly, they overcame them. “We almost played the perfect Test. If I could write a script to write it the way I would like, that’s the way I would have scripted it,” du Plessis said.
A first-innings total over 400, a century from one batsman, and bowlers who consistently applied pressure created what du Plessis called “a proper Test” on a pitch that kept interested. It also gave South Africa a proper restart to what they hope will be a successful few summers. “What a wonderful story it will be in two years’ time when we go to No. 1 again,” Steyn said.
If you were wondering what the reason was, that’s it.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent