Finally, belatedly, South Africa showcased trademark grit on day five of the series finale third Test against Australia.
Spinners Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer upstaged the specialist batters to basically steer South Africa to safety and avoid a humiliating whitewash defeat in a country they had owned for a decade during its heyday.
But the drawn result was merely window dressing because South Africa are a shadow and only Sydney’s temperamental mid-summer weather saved them with essentially two full days lost. Such their plight there was genuine anticipation that Australia could take an improbable 14 wickets on a benign SCG surface.
It was a sad situation for South Africa, who have consistently been Australia’s biggest challenger over the last three decades. Through resoluteness and an indefatigable approach, South Africa have been tough to break and only the very best Australian teams were able to do so.
But a new-look team marked by a flimsy batting order and impotent spin options means South Africa has never been weaker since readmission. It’s highly disappointing after just 12 months ago South Africa were still basking in a superb Test series triumph over India.
And they should still be formidable in home conditions, where their talented quicks can threaten in bowler-friendly conditions just like they did in the two-day first Test on a green Gabba surface.
Of more concern are the long-term implications for Test match cricket already struggling for depth. South Africa had been such a reliable team that you could just chalk them up as always being competitive.
Since their readmission in 1992, South Africa have probably been the most stable Test team with no major troughs even though they’ve had damaging scandals and complex selection issues over race to grapple with.
But their Test future is murky and it’s not just an overreaction to big series defeats in England and Australia in the last six months. There are major question marks over whether South Africa and subsequently their players will prioritize the grind of five-day cricket, which is an expensive format to host, over the riches of T20 franchise leagues.
Just as the dust settled from South Africa’s disastrous tour of Australia, the focus immediately turned to their new cashed-up T20 league which is about to launch. The league has been branded as an ‘IPL satellite’ due to teams being owned by bigwigs from the money-spinning competition in India.
Remuneration is so high that a number of star players have left the popular Big Bash League in Australia - an established competition currently in its 12th edition - for the South African league.
Cricket South Africa has stated that some funds from the competition will be invested into propping up their longer format ambitions. South Africa have for some time been losing players seeking more lucrative pastures, but it’s not hard envisioning that might continue in even greater volume.
As rich Indian businessmen start spreading their tentacles worldwide, there is the distinct possibility of the IPL in the near future globalizing in a bid to genuinely transcend the sport much like the NBA with basketball.
That spells trouble for the five-day Test format, which is still treasured by traditionalists but is out of kilter in a faster paced society and tough to fund for cash-stricken cricket boards.
During this disappointing one-sided Australian Test season, arguably the most lopsided ever, South Africa and West Indies - teams with rich Test traditions - rolled over meekly.
South Africa do not return to Australia for Test cricket in the next cycle of 2023-27 and one wonders what shape their team will be in when they next tour. It reinforces a belief that Test cricket will largely revolve around power countries Australia, India and England, who are propped by billion dollar broadcast deals.
Pakistan, who are shut out from some T20 franchise opportunities due to differences with India, might be able to devote the proper resources needed for Test cricket but off-field chaos continues to be a bane.
The other countries just don’t have the funds even though no doubt they do want to play much more of a format that is still regarded as the sport’s pinnacle. It is also unlikely that any other country will gain Test status any time soon, so expansion is almost out of the question perhaps for good.
South Africa’s overwhelming struggles in Australia, so jarring after decades of formidable cricket, appears to foreshadow a terminal decline. Time will tell if their T20 league provides a lifeline or merely accelerates the spiral.