A number of factors are weighing the visitors down in New Zealand, and not all of them are cricketing
South Africa’s support staff are struggling to put a finger on why the team’s form has swung so dramatically from their victories against India to staring at an innings defeat after two days in New Zealand. “The energies are way below par,” head coach Mark Boucher said on Friday, but not solid explanation has been forthcoming. It could be a combination of factors: the experience of a ten-day hard quarantine for the first time; an unfamiliar venue – South Africa have never played a Test at Hagley Oval before; off-field issues, with Boucher’s disciplinary hearing pending; and a lack of clarity around selection. Not to mention New Zealand’s outstanding command of their own conditions.
Boucher obliquely addressed all of them in his press conference on the second day, which ended with South Africa 34 for 3 in their second innings, trailing New Zealand by 353 runs. “It’s extremely disappointing, especially after the series we just had against India. There was high expectation from everyone,” he said. “We just haven’t come out and given the energy that’s expected of us. I can see the energies are way below par.”
Asked if South Africa’s history of being slow starters may have been taken to a new level, Boucher was unsure but said the preparation for the series had been as thorough as always. “We haven’t started well here at all and it’s not the first time it’s happened. It’s something that’s been happening for quite some time. We are trying to find out the reasons for that,” he said. “We do a lot of talking and planning throughout the series and the plans are right, but we haven’t been able to execute on those plans. The energies have been low. We can’t put our finger on it. We have to try to find a way to become better at the start of the series.”
South Africa came into this series on a high after a come-from-behind Test series win against India, at home, but also on the back of the news that some of the current squad members would be asked to testify at Boucher’s disciplinary hearing in May. The individual players who may appear at the hearing have not yet been named and, with proceedings still ongoing, Boucher could not comment on whether it has been affecting the players. “I can’t answer that for the players,” he said. “What’s happening in my personal stuff stays personal. There’s a process that’s going on and we will leave it at that.”
“There was the seventh-batter option and we decided to go with Zubayr Hamza. That’s just how we felt the line-up needed to be”
Mark Boucher on Zubayr Hamza playing ahead of Ryan Rickelton
Boucher faces charges of “gross misconduct” over racial issues and CSA is seeking his dismissal over matters, including his handling of the Black Lives Matter movement over the last two years. One of CSA’s accusations is that the changeroom was divided by race and Boucher addressed the white players while team manager Kgomotso Masubelele, who is black, held discussions with players of colour. Both Boucher and Masubelele remain in their roles and it is not known if Masubelele will also appear at the hearing.
Even if that alleged incident is not directly affecting the team at the moment, conversations around race are never far away in South African cricket. ESPNcricinfo understands that reserve batter Ryan Rickelton, who was with the squad during the India series and has scored three hundreds in his last five first-class innings and averages 118.25 this summer, was the favourite to be selected as the extra batter at No. 7. But transformation considerations led to Zubayr Hamza, in the squad because Keegan Petersen was ruled out after contracting Covid-19, being picked instead.
All Boucher said on the matter was, “There was the seventh-batter option and we decided to go with Zubayr Hamza. That’s just how we felt the line-up needed to be.”
On the subject, South Africa’s selection convener Victor Mpitsang told ESPNcricinfo, “it’s not a target issue” and “experience was a factor” in picking Hamza, who has played five Tests and double the number of first-class matches as Rickelton. Hamza has played four first-class matches this season and has scored 253 runs at an average of 36.14, but scored 125* against India A in December.
As such, South Africa’s targets are not applied per game but on average – six of colour, of which two must be black African – over a season.
The other change in the line-up was Sarel Erwee replacing Aiden Markram in the opening spot and Markram moving to No. 3 in Petersen’s absence. Neither have covered themselves in glory – and to be fair to them, no-one else has either – but Erwee has waited long enough to be given a decent run. He has been part of South Africa’s squad over the last 18 months, in which Markram’s form has dwindled. After averaging over 50 in his first ten Tests, Markram averages 25.47 from his next 20 and 9.7 in his last ten innings.
Boucher believed a lack of self-belief has had an effect on Markram’s game, as well as on others’. “There’s a lack of confidence and sometimes you go through bad periods in your game,” he said. “The wickets we’ve played on have been tough, especially for opening batters. And certain guys’ personal form is not where they want it to be and that’s added to not only the (struggles) in the opening partnership but in the top order.”
South Africa have collapsed in both innings so far, on a green, bouncy track, with New Zealand’s quicks getting enough movement in the air. They were shot out for 95 in their first innings and teetered on 4 for 3 in their second, after New Zealand piled on 482. That’s an indication that the pitch was not unplayable and of the difference in precision and skill in the two attacks. But Boucher said it should not erase the progress South Africa made against India.
“The three-match series against India was a long series. A lot of grit was shown in that series,” he said. “To wipe that series out with two really poor days in conditions guys haven’t played in before wouldn’t be fair, but I can see why people are saying it. We haven’t been good enough in all three departments. We will keep going back and looking back at how best we can continue to prepare the players for tours.”
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent