Dubai: The number of times members of the South African squad talk about “character” is enough to cast a series of movies. They have a full range. Tough characters, hard-working characters, and in the words of Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers, great characters as well.
Film heroes usually follow a fairly predictable script. They start off as likable but naive with big dreams, then they face what seems insurmountable obstacles along the way, then they develop by overcoming those, and in the end they triumph. The South African squad have already been through this cycle many times before.
But the thing about cycles is that they have no end. So, even when one has remained in the same position for some time, at some point the journey starts again. South Africa were reminded of that when they lost in Abu Dhabi. It was their first Test defeat since December 2011, and their first away from home in more than three years. It was also one of their worst defeats – perhaps not in terms of numbers – but because of the manner in which they were beaten.
The Pakistan attack out-thought them, and their own bowlers were not up to the task to operate as shrewdly. It was a defeat which highlighted how serious lack of preparation can be, and it made some believe they would suffer the same fate as the previous No.1 side, England, did in conditions that have become a new final frontier for Test cricket. But for those who have kept a close eye on them since they began ascending the rankings about three years ago, it was not a defeat which ruled them out of the series.
South Africa are simply too good a side to not learn from their mistakes and be able to rectify them quickly. By the second innings in Abu Dhabi, they were already hitting better lengths, and by the time Dubai came, the bowlers had found top gear again. The hastiness and poor shot selection that affected their batsmen in the first match was removed from their game in the second with a display of better temperament, patience and resilience. With the errors erased, they dominated again.
That takes talent, but it also takes character, which only grows stronger with every success. To build character from a failing is an even better achievement and one South Africa have not had to deal with much in the recent past. They have won six series on the trot before this one so the sting of defeat was a faded memory for all but one player who hit a personal low in the time South Africa were on the up.
Imran Tahir is the only member of the Test squad to have been dropped and recalled in the last year. The way he performed in Adelaide last November could have ruled any cricketer out of the game, much less the international circuit, because it tore apart his reputation. But Tahir was managed in a way that allowed him to believe his career was not over. He was cocooned in what his franchise coach, Geoffrey Toyana, told ESPNcricinfo was nothing more complicated than “love” and coaxed him back to form.
When he was recalled to replace Robin Peterson, it was because South Africa knew they needed a more penetrative spinner, given the conditions. The expectation was on him to perform and provide the impact he had been searching for in his previous 11 showings. He also wanted to be Smith’s go-to man. On the first surface Tahir has played on that has offered something, he delivered, finding turn and bounce, and using his googly to good effect.
His five-wicket return in the first innings, and the overall match haul of eight scalps, proved he has a future on the biggest stage. In turn repaying the faith South Africa have showed in him. “It was great to see him bowl so well,” Smith said. “He showed immense character to bounce back, and it showed we have a group of players that can respond. We all enjoyed his success. It was a testament to him as a person.”
It also gives South Africa another option going forward as they juggle between Peterson and him. Peterson will ultimately be tasked with doing a holding job, while Tahir will perhaps be saved for the subcontinent when they require an attacking bowler. That could be the biggest gain South Africa will make from this trip because they now know Tahir is someone they can turn to, rather than being a continued gamble.
They would never have been able to glean that had they not lost in Abu Dhabi and felt forced to make a change for what became a must-win game in Dubai. That it happened and they responded by making the right selection instead of sticking with Peterson as a sentimental choice is proof of the development of their character as a unit.
They did not finish with the happily ever after tag they may have wanted in terms of a series win, but they’ve definitely posted an interesting ‘to be continued’ for when the next tour to Asia, in India, occurs in two years’ time.