South African cricket survives just like the protea it is named after — a flower that is tough, evergreen, thrives in poor soil and hot and cold climates.
If there was a world championship for scandal and political warfare, South Africa would have Australia’s measure with daylight a very distant second.
In a poker hand of cricket controversies, they could raise the sandpaper saga and the odd mea culpa from players and administrators, with a full house of hostilities, from the apartheid ban, to disgraced captains, to an unpopular quota selection systems based on race, to incendiary political battlefields at board level. Only last year, the country’s sports minister had to intervene in the running of the game.
They could comfortably use the Paul Hogan, aka Crocodile Dundee, line: “That’s not a knife, this is a knife.”
Former Test and limited over batter and fielding giant Jonty Rhodes has witnessed the explosion and implosion of the Proteas on repeat.
Only 12 months ago, South Africa’s captain and wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock resigned, officially for family reasons, but still rocked by the fall out after he refused to take the knee alongside his teammates in a game against the West Indies, only to apologise, return and ultimately fall on a sword forged by his own hands.
So the Proteas turned to an old, steady hand as his replacement, 35-year-old left-handed opener Dean Elgar, appointed for his second incarnation in the role often viewed as a chalice for political poison.
That appointment, according to Rhodes, is where South African cricket, for all its own-goals and foibles, finally got right it right on the rand.
As the Proteas take guard against old nemesis Australia in a three Test series beginning at the Gabba on Saturday, Rhodes describes Elgar as the perfect person for a tough job.
“He is very aggressive. He stands up, he doesn’t shy away from any confrontation,” Rhodes said. “But more than that, he has brought the side together.
“I know Australia have had issues off the field this summer already, but South African have had issues ongoing off the field for a long time.
“Dean Elgar is somebody who has unified the team around him and around his performances.
“He is not someone who just bats in isolation. He is a team leader. You can be a captain or you can be a captain and a leader and he is definitely both.”
Somehow, through myriad issues, the South Africans have survived like the protea does, pulling together remarkable on-field performances in spite of the dismantling of the political cricket framework.
They have won their past three tours of Australia and took the most recent contest between the two countries 3-1, marked by the sandpaper scandal in which Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were suspended by Cricket Australia and sent home.
The two teams enter this series rated first (Australia) and second (South Africa) in Test rankings, yet at different points of their evolution.
Australia has had a largely settled line-up, whereas only four South African players — Elgar, Temba Bavuma, Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj — were part of the last meeting in 2018.
The Proteas have blooded eight debutants in the past 18 months.
Rhodes says the South Africa bowling attack might have an edge in variety, but the Aussies have the superior top order on paper.
“Elgar I think is the only batter who has been to Australia. Theunis de Bruyn played in 2018 against Austraila in South Africa,” he said.
“We don’t have a lot of experience in Australia.”
If it comes down to aggression, Rhodes says South Africa will prove a formidable opponent.
“We had an aggressive team when we first came out — Kepler Wessels, Brian McMillan, we had some really grumpy blokes in our team,” he said. “We weren’t backing down to A.B. (Allan Border) or any of the Aussie greats.
“But it’s not so much about the verbal, I think aggression is more about how you dominate play.
“That is not hitting fours and sixes, it’s getting in there and grinding out the opposition and you just don’t back down, you don’t give the opposition a sniff. I think that’s something we’ve had.
“Take Hashim Amla, who is the nicest guy in the world, but when he bats and he bats he just looks like he is never going to get out.
“That’s how you stand up to teams. If you are playing and missing and flashing at balls outside (off stump), it doesn’t look like you have got the mettle.
“Hashim, Faf du Plessis, Graeme Smith, it wasn’t about the verbal, it was a presence.”
Rhodes said South Africa’s experience in dealing with controversy and moving on meant it was not hung up on Cape Town and it seemed to be more of an Australian obsession.
“From a South African point of view we have all moved on from that and we have had similar scandals from a ball tampering point of view that have just washed away,” he said.
“The only reference point is because we are about to play in Australia and there is David Warner’s appeal . If that hadn’t been brought up, South Africa wouldn’t be talking about it. There would be the odd sarcastic remark, possibly to try and needle Steve Smith or Dave Warner but that would be it.”
Away from the Test arena, Rhodes will also take time out to watch the Big Bash and marvel at the athleticism of the modern day cricketer.
A more than handy batter at Test and limited overs level, Rhodes scored more than 8000 international runs with five centuries and 50 half-centuries, but he was better known as the pre-eminent fielder of his time.
Still a fielding coach with Indian Premier League team King XI Punjab, as a player Rhodes came from a hockey background and patrolled backward point like an acrobatic prison guard, his signature moment a run out of Pakistan’s Inzamam-Ul-Haq during the 1992 World Cup.
“I was diving around as a school kid, so I had a reputation of being a good fielder,” Rhodes said.
“In my high school magazine, the sports report was Rhodes scored runs, but man this kid can field. But it wasn’t like I saw a gap in the market and I went for it. I just loved my fielding.
“For a long time, particularly as a coach, I did feel like the father of fielding, but now I feel like the grandfather of fielding.
“What the guys are doing now and T20 has shown it, there is just no place to hide. I do a lot of work in the IPL and the local youngsters don’t play other sports at all, so cricket for them is a very linear game. There is no lateral movement.
“People ask ‘How do you take catches?’ and I say ‘You have got to move’. If you don’t move, you can have the best hands in the world, but if you can’t get to it you are never going to catch it.”
As a fielder Rhodes never left the inner-circle in limited overs cricket, but he said the major change in fielding had been the boundary work.
“It is really incredible to see what the guys are doing. Your sub fielders who come on, most of them are specialist fielders, they are expected to do miraculous things in the outfield which we have seen in the Big Bash,” he said.
“Andrew Symonds was the first big unit who could move around in the circle.
“Usually if you are a big unit you have power but not the agility.
“He was dynamic in the ring, he was great under the helmet around the bat and he had this massive arm from the boundary and really safe hands under the high ball. He was probably the first all-round fielder who is the epitome of a modern day great fielder. Someone who can field literally in any position.
“It has been great to see how it has come on.”
Jonty Rhodes will cover the three Test series as a commentator with Channel 7.
FOUR GREAT MODERN DAY FIELDERS RHODES LOVES TO WATCH
Suresh Raina (India): He was somebody who was phenomenal. He has just ended his international career and I saw him a lot during the IPL and he would field in any position. He would throw himself around. And remember in Australia and South Africa as kids growing up, we have turf in the backyard. In India, often they don’t have grass and the outfield is really hard to dive on. So the young Indian player diving on the field, I respect that. The landing is quite tough at times.”
Martin Guptill (New Zealand): “Brilliant in all phases of fielding.”
Ben Stokes (England): “Has the knack of just sticking his hand up and taking incredible catches.”
Ravindra Jadeja (India): I highly rate him as a fielder for his speed across the ground and his accuracy with the side-on throw.”