Deja vu : The twists and turns of life as a South African cricket follower

When bad things happen, it’s supposed to be helpful if you’ve seen them before. If you know that this too shall pass.

And I do think there’s something in this. Take, for example, South Africa’s ongoing meltdown with the bat in Australia. I’m old enough to lived through a few of those before. And then to have savoured the delight of revenge.

Back in the day – the Proteas tour of 2001/02 stands out as the lowest point – I experienced the steady stream of tumbling wickets with a horror that was vivid, real and painful. It probably helped that I was a student and had grown up without international sport thanks to apartheid. That my life had been timed in such a way – Nelson Mandela lifted the Rugby World Cup when I was 15 – that it was possible to believe that South Africa’s rugby and cricket sides do not lose. Victory was a divine right.

So you can imagine how my teeth gnashed when Shane Warne and the other Aussie greats of that era got stuck into us in what for me was the middle of the night. It’s a feeling I described in my book The Road to Innamincka:

“I had spent my teenage years watching South Africa getting butchered by a succession of world-beating Aussie teams. Given the time difference to South Africa, this had been a fundamentally nocturnal activity. So happenings on Australian cricket fields had long held trippy, dystopian associations for me. As I’d battled my drooping eyelids and began to succumb to three-minute sleeps, the fierce blue skies on my television screen seemed all the more improbable. People in bikinis and sombreros were doing Mexican waves in Melbourne whilst I drifted in and out of consciousness in the darkest hour of an African night. The hulking stadia were rabid colosseums where torture played out in front of baying crowds. To my fatigue-drugged mind, the marauding Australian bowlers morphed into grinning road trains as they tore into our batters. If their latest wicket caught me napping, the whoops and hollers of the home commentators would rouse me just long enough to register that the nightmare was getting worse.”

But it passed. As I went on to describe in the same tome, I was at the Adelaide Oval when, a decade later, Faf du Plessis had another Aussie spinner pulling out what little hair he had in a fruitless quest for the Pretorian’s wicket. And the pleasure of watching the Baggy Green bowlers trying to break down a brick wall would not have been so sweet without the trauma that had gone before.

That 2012/13 series went South Africa’s way. It was the second of three consecutive successful revenge campaigns on Australian soil. Winning over there, against the southern hemisphere brethren so similar to ourselves, never got old. Especially since we couldn’t seem to repeat the feats when they visited our shores. Not until Sandpapergate, anyway.

And now, we’ve come full circle. But this time around, I’m able to take in the nicks and the GOT ‘IM’s in sanguine style now. A rueful smile, a shake of the head, a sarcastic harrumph – that’s as far as it goes. Because I’ve seen South Africa’s cricket fortunes spin through the tumble dryer more than once. No level of delusion is enough to bury the fact that we can and do lose, just like other countries do.

So yes, it does help to have lived through this before. Perspective and all of that.

It helps, too, that expectations ahead of this series were modest to say the least. Our batsmen are almost complete strangers to three-figure scores at any level of the game. The way things have unfolded over the first two tests comes as no surprise whatsoever.

But will this pass? If it’s only a question of waiting for the cycle to repeat itself, as cycles in sport do, then yes it will. All things being equal, South Africa’s time will come again.

Are they equal, though? Cricket has changed in ways you don’t need me to list here. The fact that my country’s schools churn out sporting talent at an almost offensive rate will only be of limited use when the Proteas have to wait out huge chunks of time between Test series. Their next three-test assignment is…wait for it…in 2026. How can anybody get better if they don’t play? Can the cycle wind itself on, or are we facing West Indies-style freefall?

I fear I know the answer – but I hope I’m wrong.

Either way, though, it’s good to have a bank of memories – and a few treasured video recordings from back in the day – on which to draw. When international cricket is gone and we have nothing but five-over clashes between the Brisbane Biscuits and the Sydney Screamers to watch, it is for these that I shall reach.

Broadcast Schedule

India v England 2024 Test Series
IND v ENG 5th Test, Dharamsala
7th March to 11th March
Start time: 4:00 am GMT