By the time South Africa’s net session had ended and they headed to the Lord’s outfield for their fielding session, it was time for Olivier to head to the airport. He will be back in South Africa tomorrow, where “I’ve heard it’s really cold,” – a far cry from the UK heatwave that has left even those who are usually used to the heat sweating.
Close to the boundary near the Pavilion, Rabada wiped his brow as he prepared to practice his catches in the deep. He was grouped with Ngidi, Maharaj, Lutho Sipamla and Khaya Zondo. Of those, only Rabada and Maharaj have played at the venue before. Zondo, new to the slope, said he found the ball dropped on him quicker than he was expecting it to and Rabada and Maharaj instructed him to hold his hands higher up. “It’s like catching at the Wanderers,” Rabada told him. Zondo took all his catches after that.
About 20 minutes later, South Africa’s first session at Lord’s – their 10th stop on a tour that started five weeks ago – ended with high-fives and happy chatter. They have consistently maintained they are a happy, settled and confident group – despite the storms that raged for most of the last three years in South African cricket – and for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic restricted access to training sessions, we could see it.
Asked what the mood in the camp was like on this tour compared to what it has been over the last while, Ngidi confirmed there was a lightness to the way they operated now. “I would say we are in a much better position now. You can see the team environment from the banter that we have and the energy around, everyone seems to be in a pretty good space,” he said. “We need to keep that environment. Once you’re happy off the field, it makes that job on the field easier.”
Because the job is about as tough as it gets. Although South Africa lead the World Test Championship points table, their toughest assignments in this cycle are still to come. They play Bazball-inspired England before their first festive-season visit to Australia, which include Tests at the MCG and SCG, since 2008. Most of the current squad have never experienced Test cricket in either of these places and South Africa are getting all hands on deck to ensure they are equipped.
Neil McKenzie, CSA’s high-performance batting lead, who works across domestic and international structures and has vast experience in England, is on this trip along with the team’s batting coach Justin Sammons. Malibongwe Maketa, the assistant coach in the Ottis Gibson era and current A team coach, is also around, as are regular bowling coach Charl Langeveldt, fielding coach Justin Ontong and head coach Mark Boucher.
Collectively, they like to use the word “upskill,” to describe what they have focused on as they’ve tried to rebuild South African cricket from the failures of the 2019 World Cup and subsequent tour to India that left the team in tatters. Things have not been easy since then, largely because of administrative crises but also because of the scrutiny the team environment has been under.