Given the complete lack of a contest in this clash between South Africa and Bangladesh, there is very little that can be read into the result. It tells us only what we already know, that South Africa are a stronger team than Bangladesh, but maybe, it also tells us something more.
This South African side has just about a full-strength batting line-up (AB de Villiers is the only notable absentee) but an almost entirely new-look attack. Kagiso Rabada, with 22 caps, is the most experienced member of the pack in the current XI and is now properly establishing himself as its leader. Wayne Parnell is making his umpteenth comeback, having never become a regular. Duanne Olivier and Andile Phehlukwayo are trying to make cases for more permanent places.
Without disrespecting Bangladesh, Rabada indicated that all of them have been given a gentle easing-in, and South Africa have been allowed a glimpse into what lies ahead without much to block their view. “We were sitting down and I was speaking to Quinny saying that all the guys we played with and against at school are all in the team now and are coming up. South Africa is in good hands in the future,” Rabada, who become Test cricket’s leading wicket-taker in 2017, said. “It gets much tougher than Bangladesh, of course. You can play them in their conditions and it’s a different story. It gets harder from here. This is not it.”
That South African cricket is in safe hands is a bold statement to make, not least because there are many arguments against it. The most obvious is the domestic system, which has been ravaged by Kolpaks and has not thrown up any stand-out names to compete with the current crop.
Aiden Markram was the most recent one and though he has made the step-up seamlessly, there are not too many candidates who look like they will be able to do the same. In seasons to come that may change, but for now, the pressure is on the incumbents to do the job, none more so than Rabada.
When South Africans think of their next “it” cricketer, they think of him. Though he went through a quiet period in England, the signs from him this summer suggest he is in good rhythm. He didn’t go as far as to confirm that, but hinted he is maturing enough to have learnt to work through setbacks.
“There is expectation and there will be pressure. No-one is a Rambo, we are all human beings. You have to find ways to cope with it,” Rabada said. “The best players and the guys who have been in the longest have found ways to cope with it. Sometimes it can get bigger and you have to find a new way to deal with it. You grow as a person when things are not going your way.”
Having a new coach will help. Not because the previous one – Russell Domingo, who Rabada was a supporter of – did anything wrong but because his replacement, Ottis Gibson brings fresh ideas. “He is a very stern character but at the same time he is lenient. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He cracks jokes with the guys,” the also-stern Rabada said. “He brings in his own dynamic, something as South Africans we are not particularly used to, but the guys are enjoying what he brings to the table. When we do the warm-ups, we do things in a different style and the guys enjoy it.”
Like the team, Gibson’s performance also cannot be properly assessed on this series but the early signs are good. Gibson has managed to impress on his men that this assignment should be taken seriously and apart from some dropped catches in Potchefstroom, South Africa have been clinical.
They’ve even been hard on themselves when it hasn’t quite gone according to plan, like when Liton Das enjoyed a period of run-scoring in the afternoon. Rabada would not like to see that repeated.
“Liton Das came in at a time where the ball got a bit soft and it wasn’t doing much. He is a good player and I thought he was nice and patient and aggressive. I thought we missed our mark with him at times, giving him freebies so that’s something we have to talk about and execute tomorrow so it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Ultimately, South Africa know that if “we just stuck to our plans and at the end of the day the batsmen got themselves out”. Bangladesh’s capitulation means interest in this series will sink even lower and discussions around the standard of Test cricket between top-tier and lower-tier countries may be sparked again.
For Rabada, it’s not about the gap but how South Africa have filled it. “I don’t think you can compare a first-class game to an international game, but it feels like one because there isn’t a crowd. It’s very peaceful. We didn’t take them lightly. We prepared very well and we executed our plans well. They’ve got some good players so we made sure we didn’t give them any space.”