Outgoing coach Mark Boucher expressed his disappointment that South Africa's batters did not give their bowlers enough of a chance to challenge England in what he called a "missed opportunity" to win what was his last Test series in charge. Speaking after the 2-1 series defeat, but before his resignation was made public, a visibly downcast Boucher rued South Africa's lack of runs which failed to back up a strong pace pack.
"I'm disappointed because it's a missed opportunity," he said. "We played some very good cricket but then we let ourselves down. We just didn't put the runs on the board so we never quite knew how we could test England. We believed we had the bowlers to be able to take 20 wickets, but you've got to score runs."
But as much as Boucher was less than satisfied with his batters, he could not bring himself to lay the blame entirely on them, instead distributing it between the opposition's bowling, English conditions and lack of experience.
"I'm disappointed but understanding that our guys didn't go out and try to play maverick cricket. We tried really hard. I could see it yesterday [day four of the Oval Test when South Africa worked their way to 83 for 1, but they went on to lose 9 for 86]. The guys got tested and fell short technically, but also because of good bowling. We knew England had a good attack and we were going to be tested. Unfortunately, we couldn't stand up to it.
"We always knew we were going to be under pressure if the conditions went around a bit. In South Africa, the conditions are not the same. That ball doesn't swing, the contact points are different, and these batters who are here have been consistently the best batters in our country. If you have a look at the last top seven who came to England and won the series [in 2012], between them there were 470-odd Test matches. With 10 of our batters who batted in the top seven in this series, we're on about 170. There's a big difference. The only way you get experience is to go out there and play."
And that's where South Africa have it tough. They only have one more three-Test series in the current World Test Championship (WTC) cycle, against Australia over the festive period, and will then play two-Test series until hosting England in 2026. Like captain Dean Elgar, who routinely laments the lack of Test cricket, Boucher also made the case for more games, albeit that the next Future Tours Programme (2023-2027) is decided and there is very little wiggle room.
"To lose sight of Test cricket and lose games is not great," Boucher said. "I'm a purist. I love Test cricket to bits. It's the purest form of the game and one that we really need to look after. The heads in the game need to get together and find a way to play more Test cricket," he said. "And it's exciting, especially with the way the games are being played now. It's very seldom that you have draws. The game's moved forward, maybe because of T20 cricket. Guys are playing shots they would never usually play. It's attacking and it's a nice game to watch at the moment. So the more we see it, the better it will be for everyone."
That may also be part of South Africa's problem. While their Test batters cannot be accused of playing an overly aggressive T20 style, they could be criticised for a lack of innovation which leads to limited scoring options and a tentative approach to scoring. While Boucher and batting coach Justin Sammons have transformed South Africa's limited-overs approach which sees players bring out more reverse sweeps and paddles than before, they have been unable to do the same with the Test line-up, and that may be because they are more stoic batters by nature, especially when compared with a team like England.
"We give the guys freedom to play and to express themselves," Boucher added. "The way that England would like to go out and play, you need to have the characters to do that, first of all. A lot of their guys are good white-ball cricketers as well. You have to, in these conditions, trust your defence. We haven't been able to keep out their good balls. It's one thing to say to guys to go out there and play with freedom, but there are consequences when guys are fighting for their Test spots and fighting for their careers. As much as a coach can say play with freedom, within your blueprint we want you to be nice and aggressive, we want you to play a good, attacking style of cricket, it's up to the individual and the character that comes with that; who trusts his defence and goes out and tries to dominate an attack."
Boucher was also wary of trying to do too much with the Test batters, who should have already developed a way of playing that only needs some fine-tuning once they get to the international stage. "It's a fine line as a coach because a guy comes in and you don't want to change him. This is not an academy of learning. This is Test cricket," Boucher said. "You don't want to change him too much because you also don't want to give them the option of saying, 'I came in here playing my way, and I've gone into Test cricket and you've tried to change me. Maybe I should have just been myself.' That's the fine line. As a coach you've maybe got to go back to the drawing board and say 'let's have a look at you playing in all these different conditions and experiencing all of this, and hopefully, try and get it right the next time you come back here'."
And in referencing an example of someone whose technique was thought to be no-good but eventually won out, Boucher picked one of South Africa's best. "Look at Hashim Amla. His technique when he started playing Test cricket compared to what it is now is conditioning through a lot of time with a lot of experience; going through a couple of ups and downs. That's what these guys have to go through."
Amla played in a team with big run-scorers and grew into the role of being one of the biggest. South Africa have no one in that mould now, not even Elgar, who is closing in on 5000 runs but is not as consistent as the batters of old. Perhaps it is unfair to expect them to produce the results of old. And even though we are all exhausted from reading how much South Africa are still in transition and learning, that might be all there is to it. They have made the changes they thought they could make in dropping Aiden Markram and swapping out Rassie van der Dussen through injury, and now they have to back the batters in possession to avoid having them fail in the same ways.
"We were forced into a position in this game where we had to give opportunities to other guys. You can't keep going with the same guys and they keep failing," Boucher said. "Sometimes it gets into their heads, and you can see guys really trying hard but it's like sinking sand - the harder they try, the further, the deeper they fall in."