It was the season where often problem-plagued South Africa saved their best for last … or did they?
Had the line been drawn on their 2019/20 summer after the satisfaction of the 3-0 home whitewashing of Australia in a still extremely recent one-day international series, it would have been the perfect way to go into an autumn hiatus from international activity.
But that line can’t quite be drawn yet: the campaign (one that took the Proteas severely through the wringer at times) effectively began in India in mid-September and goes full circle by ending there too: three blink-and-you’d-miss-them ODIs against the same foes on their taxing terrain, beginning at idyllic Dharamshala on Thursday, 10:00 SA time.
In many respects, it would have been better for Quinton de Kock’s remoulding outfit to have dispersed in the heady afterglow of that slightly unexpected, but marvellously comprehensive triumph over the Aussies.
There can be no questioning this: it was their finest series, across the three formats, of the seven they’ve played thus far during 2019/20 … and their only outright victorious one, which only adds to the no-brainer factor.
While the much earlier, weather-affected Twenty20 series in India had been shared 1-1, and the Proteas also split the similarly curtailed ODI portion of England’s full-length visit here in mid-summer, all other series went the wrong way.
India clean-swept the Proteas 3-0 in Tests, the English won both the Test and T20 series on our soil, and Australia did likewise in the shortest format.
So South Africa’s season was headed for rare levels of poverty – before the belated present to their long-suffering supporters of that polished Aussie-slaying in Paarl, Bloemfontein and Potchefstroom respectively.
India is probably the last place you’d wish for them, alas, to try to place a cherry on top.
The Proteas are only scurrying there for this quickfire combat because India’s packed schedule meant they couldn’t accommodate all three formats several months ago.
Still, cash-strapped Cricket South Africa are never going to turn down any opportunity to do battle with the world’s runaway commercial juggernaut of the sport.
Second only to World Cup holders England on the current ODI rankings, the home country will be reasonably firm favourites to beat a Proteas outfit featuring several greenhorns who have never yet experienced the intensity of highest-level combat there.
The Indians are traditionally at their brazen best against visiting foes in the 50-overs landscape, something reflected in the fact that they have won eight of their last nine home bilateral series (only blip in the period was a 3-2 defeat to Australia in 2018/19).
Virat Kohli and company will also feel that they can inflict further mental scarring, if you like, on a few Proteas players with slightly bitter memories of recent Test-level tribulations in that country.
Truth be told, though, there aren’t too many of them left, and it will be intriguing to see how fresher, pleasingly emerging customers in the SA ranks adapt to conditions and other demands on this mini-tour, unencumbered as they largely are by notable past difficulties there.
This stiff exercise, while not in the T20 format both nations would wish to prioritise from now onward as the ICC T20 World Cup draws closer, will nevertheless help SA head coach Mark Boucher and company to narrow down their general white-ball personnel (hearteningly, a fairly delicate task for the right reasons as things stand) for the global jamboree in Australia later in the year.
Then again, just how much emphasis should you place on statistical delivery in India when we all know that pitches Down Under will largely be different in character to the ones presented very shortly?
It could complicate selection for further down the line, but this much is certain: any, not yet fully secure Proteas batsmen making encouraging inroads against India’s wily spinners in the next few days, in particular, are likely to have boxes alongside their names ticked with special vigour, as that department remains a national bugbear in all the formats.
The Proteas, on the plus side, have shown in recent years a much steelier resolve in white-ball clashes on Indian soil than in the five-day environment.
On that horrendous, Test-spearheaded tour of 2015/16, for example, they had managed to edge out the ODI series 3-2 … still the last time South Africa have played bilateral ODIs in India.
So while a lamentable, all-fall-down sort of week of combat against the Indians will wincingly reverse quite a few of the Proteas’ stirring strides made against Australia, it is well less than guaranteed that this will happen.
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