England v SA, 1st Investec Test, The Oval July 18, 2012

Top in touching distance for Smith

After 10 years as captain, Graeme Smith has another chance to take South Africa to the top of the world
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It looks as though Graeme Smith can barely believe it. Years of being second best could end in five weeks' time in England. It will present other problems, like figuring out how to stay on top, but that's something Smith can worry about another day. For now, the reality that the top is within touching distance has sunk in and the dream of actually touching the top is three Tests away from coming true.

South Africa have walked this road so many times before it has become a circle. They could have become the No.1 team twice in the last two years - if they had beaten India at home in 2010-11 or whitewashed New Zealand away in the three-Test series in March - and both times they fell short. They have been at the top for brief periods, sometimes after big series wins such as in 2008 against England, and other times not of their own doing but because a convolution of other results conspired to put them there.

They would have us believe it does not matter. Gary Kirsten has taught every member of the squad to repeat that rankings don't actually matter to them, but it is a thinly disguised statement. Having always come short, in World Cups and on standings for as long as either have existed, being the best is something that matters dearly to those involved in South African cricket. It will be represent a final coming of age and a completion of something they have heard said about them but have no proof of: that they have it in them to be called the world's top team.

Smith knows that South Africa have done all the hard work in all the right places to put themselves in a position where they can rightfully claim to the best. "We've been really consistent," he said. "In all conditions, it's fair to say, we've been the most consistent team over the last period of time." He's not wrong. South Africa have gone six years and nine series without losing away from home. In that time, they have won in Pakistan, Bangladesh, England, Australia, West Indies and New Zealand and drawn in India, twice, and the United Arab Emirates.

The core of the squad from those trips have remained. Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel were all part of teams that have conquered every corner. The remaining five spots in the starting XI have rotated between opening partners for Smith, different No. 6 batsmen, a third seamer, and Paul Harris, who was in the spinner's position as recently as a season ago.

Some of those have settled now, particularly in the bowling department. Vernon Philander arrived moulded into the third seamer's role as though he was born to do it and Harris has permanently discarded for Imran Tahir. As a unit, Smith rates this bowling attack as the most dynamic he has captained in nine years in the job.

"Morne and Dale are further along with their skills and development from the last time we played England but they still have the same pace," he said. "On a number of those tours, our third seamer was new, whereas Vernon has come in and established himself quite well. With Imran developing really well, there is a lot to look forward to and a lot to work with." The secret to South Africa's bowling success is that those four front-liners do not represent their entire bowling reserves. Jacques Kallis is used in short bursts as an additional, fifth bowler. Smith called it a "massive blessing to have a batsman at No.4 who can bowl the way he does." Andrew Strauss weighed in by saying England have only needed four bowlers to take 20 wickets, Kallis' role is something that could prove the difference between the attacks.

Cruel as it is, Mark Boucher, who was the core of the core until last week, is no longer part of the squad. His exclusion gives South Africa more options for now. With AB de Villiers set to keep wicket until the management have found the right time (read: an easier series) to blood Thami Tsolekile, South Africa can play an extra batsman or an extra bowler or someone who is both. JP Duminy is that someone. With his improved technique in longer forms of the game and his offspin, he becomes the person who could "offer something different" as Smith put it.

South Africa have spent years searching for the "something different" that will set them apart from other teams. They have been criticised for being too predictable, lacking in variety and being a team that can dominate until the big occasion. Now that one of the biggest occasions is upon them, Smith believes they are ready to deliver.

England is no longer the unchartered territory it was four years ago. South Africa have been here and won here. Although the England team they will come up against is, according to Smith, "a better team than they have had for a long time," they face their own demons, which include holding on to that No.1 ranking, "being chased by a pack comes with its own pressure and this being the first major defence of their title," Smith said.

Whether that pressure will make England a more difficult prospect or an easier target is yet to be seen. Either way, South Africa may not even notice. They have prepared for this series with the focus solely on themselves and their processes because they know that what is at stake is bigger than anything they have had to tussle over before.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • POSTED BY madras_boy on | July 19, 2012, 13:01 GMT

    @Front-Foot-Lunge : Cool down. I am an Indian Fan. England whitewashed a depleted Australia this year. So, cannot count. I have to accept that they played against former No.1 India last year but that is in England under Home Conditions. Don't forget, England was whitewashed by India in ODI last year and a test series is not far away this year in India... Also England is going to play Oz this year and I am sure England will loose its numero one !!! Infact SA will win this series easily !!!

  • POSTED BY JG2704 on | July 19, 2012, 10:12 GMT

    @Hazeyrocks on (July 19 2012, 08:45 AM GMT) There are plenty underestimating England too. Your post is hardly giving England a chance

  • POSTED BY klempie on | July 19, 2012, 10:01 GMT

    HAHA. Loving the comments by the pasty Poms here. The over-inflated opinions of their team's capabilities are a typical before the inevitable Pommie fall. Proteas to win 2-0. Same as the rugby.

  • POSTED BY Front-Foot-Lunge on | July 19, 2012, 9:44 GMT

    No question that England are world number 1 and have been for an age now. But can SA pull off a shocker? It'll come down to injuries, and who performs best on the day. Could go either way. Ask an Indian or Australian fan, however, and they'll say England. They know what they're like, having been whitewashed and pummelled famously in the last year.

  • POSTED BY A_Vacant_Slip on | July 19, 2012, 9:32 GMT

    @Hammond Agree mate. All the hater come here but they whistle in the wind....

  • POSTED BY StaalBurgher on | July 19, 2012, 9:23 GMT

    It is definitely amusing how the England fans think SA is an "average" side. This is arguably the strongest team we have had since readmission. Last time we beat England in England Steyn was not even playing due to injury.

    Both teams have improved since then and both teams have been inconsistent at times. England are 1-2 points ahead. SA would've beaten NZ 3-0 if not for rain delays which would've put us 1-2 points ahead of England. So there is not mucn in it. Not making excuses but it is clear to any objective viewer that Eng and SA are very evenly matched. This should be a cracker of a series.

    My only concern for SA is whether our batsmen will adapt to Test batting quick enough. Cavalier batting (oh, and the selection of Ntini when he average 100 in the domestic 4-day comp) is what cost us home wins against India and England.

    That said, I don't know why I am surprised. England always get arrogant and over confident the moment they have a little bit of success.

  • POSTED BY Hazeyrocks on | July 19, 2012, 8:45 GMT

    Love how people are underestimating Saffas :). In for a nasty shock. Only person I'm worried about in the batting line up is Cook. Trott is Steyn's bunny, so is Strauss. And ENG @ 20/2 with pietersen coming in is 25/3 either through a suicidal KP run out or a beauty from Vern. Can't wait. Go SA

  • POSTED BY mcsdl on | July 19, 2012, 8:14 GMT

    All I can say to England is "Pakistan 3-0"

  • POSTED BY alexbrn on | July 19, 2012, 7:44 GMT

    It's fairly clear how Fate dictates this series will play out. It will be 1-1 going into the final match, SA will get into a match-winning position and then spectacularly "choke", handing an unlikely victory (and retention of the #1 spot) to ENG ;-)

  • POSTED BY JM_RSA on | July 19, 2012, 7:30 GMT

    To all the England fans who believe that their team are mighty and invincible in England, they will be shocked after the end of the 1st test. Cant wait. Steyn, Morkel and Philander. Cant get any better!

  • POSTED BY madras_boy on | July 19, 2012, 13:01 GMT

    @Front-Foot-Lunge : Cool down. I am an Indian Fan. England whitewashed a depleted Australia this year. So, cannot count. I have to accept that they played against former No.1 India last year but that is in England under Home Conditions. Don't forget, England was whitewashed by India in ODI last year and a test series is not far away this year in India... Also England is going to play Oz this year and I am sure England will loose its numero one !!! Infact SA will win this series easily !!!

  • POSTED BY JG2704 on | July 19, 2012, 10:12 GMT

    @Hazeyrocks on (July 19 2012, 08:45 AM GMT) There are plenty underestimating England too. Your post is hardly giving England a chance

  • POSTED BY klempie on | July 19, 2012, 10:01 GMT

    HAHA. Loving the comments by the pasty Poms here. The over-inflated opinions of their team's capabilities are a typical before the inevitable Pommie fall. Proteas to win 2-0. Same as the rugby.

  • POSTED BY Front-Foot-Lunge on | July 19, 2012, 9:44 GMT

    No question that England are world number 1 and have been for an age now. But can SA pull off a shocker? It'll come down to injuries, and who performs best on the day. Could go either way. Ask an Indian or Australian fan, however, and they'll say England. They know what they're like, having been whitewashed and pummelled famously in the last year.

  • POSTED BY A_Vacant_Slip on | July 19, 2012, 9:32 GMT

    @Hammond Agree mate. All the hater come here but they whistle in the wind....

  • POSTED BY StaalBurgher on | July 19, 2012, 9:23 GMT

    It is definitely amusing how the England fans think SA is an "average" side. This is arguably the strongest team we have had since readmission. Last time we beat England in England Steyn was not even playing due to injury.

    Both teams have improved since then and both teams have been inconsistent at times. England are 1-2 points ahead. SA would've beaten NZ 3-0 if not for rain delays which would've put us 1-2 points ahead of England. So there is not mucn in it. Not making excuses but it is clear to any objective viewer that Eng and SA are very evenly matched. This should be a cracker of a series.

    My only concern for SA is whether our batsmen will adapt to Test batting quick enough. Cavalier batting (oh, and the selection of Ntini when he average 100 in the domestic 4-day comp) is what cost us home wins against India and England.

    That said, I don't know why I am surprised. England always get arrogant and over confident the moment they have a little bit of success.

  • POSTED BY Hazeyrocks on | July 19, 2012, 8:45 GMT

    Love how people are underestimating Saffas :). In for a nasty shock. Only person I'm worried about in the batting line up is Cook. Trott is Steyn's bunny, so is Strauss. And ENG @ 20/2 with pietersen coming in is 25/3 either through a suicidal KP run out or a beauty from Vern. Can't wait. Go SA

  • POSTED BY mcsdl on | July 19, 2012, 8:14 GMT

    All I can say to England is "Pakistan 3-0"

  • POSTED BY alexbrn on | July 19, 2012, 7:44 GMT

    It's fairly clear how Fate dictates this series will play out. It will be 1-1 going into the final match, SA will get into a match-winning position and then spectacularly "choke", handing an unlikely victory (and retention of the #1 spot) to ENG ;-)

  • POSTED BY JM_RSA on | July 19, 2012, 7:30 GMT

    To all the England fans who believe that their team are mighty and invincible in England, they will be shocked after the end of the 1st test. Cant wait. Steyn, Morkel and Philander. Cant get any better!

  • POSTED BY moBlue on | July 19, 2012, 6:03 GMT

    the saffers are just plain unpredictable - and inconsistent! world beaters? hardly! i'm referring to their batters, the honorable kallis excepted. to wit, SA crushed IND by an innings and a mile in the first test 2 winters ago only to be humiliated by sreesanth and harbhajan [they folded in the first innings to a withering sreesanth for 84!] - and their bowlers thwarted by laxman - to lose badly in the second test! i would have given *that* IND team no chance, especially after the ghosts of yesteryears were let out after the away-thrashing IND received in the first test. yet, SA went into the second inning of the third test in dire straits, and it required a herculean effort from kallis to save the third test for SA *at home* - against IND!!! i will concede that there is one key difference from *that* squad, and that would be vernon philander. but their batters need to play a whole lot more consistently than they did against sreesanth, zaheer and bhajji for ENG's bowlers are way better

  • POSTED BY phoenixsteve on | July 19, 2012, 6:01 GMT

    Smith should sleep soundly as South Africa have little chance of beating an England test team performing at even 80%. Graeme Smith.... AKA the walking LBW! COME ON ENGLAND!!!

  • POSTED BY priceless1 on | July 19, 2012, 5:30 GMT

    Engalnd is the Favorite and they should win it comfortably , SA is just an ordinary side

  • POSTED BY thruthecovers on | July 19, 2012, 5:16 GMT

    Just realised that I interpreted the stats wrong (go figure!!!), adjusted it should read 31% for ENG at home and 42% for SA away. That is everytime a batsman goes past 50 and convert it into a hundred. So, SA is still likely to convert more of its starts than ENG but their tail has been wagging alot more effieciently than SA's. Will they be able to save the day? And how much will SA's batting have been strengthened by Duminy batting 7? Not much in it but will come down how quickly gets going in this series. My gut says SA the better outfit but ENG is well acclimatised. 1-0 to SA with one rain affected draw.

  • POSTED BY Jarr30 on | July 19, 2012, 3:20 GMT

    This article amuses me..SA has not won a series against India,Eng & Australia home or away in last 3 yrs. I agree that India & England have been inconsistence staying at top for long time buts SA still cannot be on top even for 1 yr so why this hype for No 1 ?? I feel England will beat them 2-0.

  • POSTED BY Hammond on | July 19, 2012, 3:00 GMT

    So near, and yet so far. Get used to the number 3 spot SA. And to all the anti-English brigade out there, prepare your various excuses gentlemen.

  • POSTED BY Jonathan_E on | July 19, 2012, 0:09 GMT

    I predict a hard-fought 1-1 with one draw, which may or may not be rain-affected.

  • POSTED BY on | July 18, 2012, 23:52 GMT

    @Juiceoftheapple - "Disciplined and pig-headed"? Were you describing Graeme Smith or Jacques Kallis? Or Hashim Amla (not sure if pig-headed is accurate but he has batted for long periods in trying conditions before)? ;) I am looking forward to great cricket from both sides and a Test series worthy of the name. I want a South African series win but I'm just going to enjoy this series a day at a time. The wait has been hard but finally the battle begins!

  • POSTED BY thruthecovers on | July 18, 2012, 23:31 GMT

    For some reason I can't comment on the article in question, and this is my first try admittedly, but for me the most telling stats between the two sides are the conversion rates from 50's to 100's. At home, Eng convert about 46% (34/73) of its 50's into 100's, while SA sits at about 73% (28/38) away from home. If generally accepted that this will be a bowler-dominated series, it becomes almost paramount for the batsmen of both teams to cash in when past 50. The stats shows SA batsmen to be more likely, but cricket is not played with a calculator nor is it on paper, therefore one should be carefull to draw too many conclusions from these stats or read too much into them. Makes for interesting reading all the same...As an Saffa I would like us to win but would settle for the best team to be the ultimate victor. If that proves ENG, then so be it. Cricket will be the ultimate winner in the end.

  • POSTED BY Juiceoftheapple on | July 18, 2012, 22:50 GMT

    England only a few years ago were in transition and disarray, every base is covered now, albeit the individual talent of the Saffers may be slightly higher. England are a complete unit with few weaknesses. At home, in the poor excuse for a summer, SA will get no easy runs; under grey skies, to packed stadiums, on lively wickets, all summer long the swinging ball has been destroying batting line ups, and only the most disciplined and pig headed have made runs. I cant see anything but an Englad win.

  • POSTED BY Supa_SAFFA on | July 18, 2012, 22:34 GMT

    Whenever SA has had a draw, it's been about as close to a win as you can get. India was about 4 overs away from losing the test series and no.1 ranking to SA when they took the last crucial wicket and secured a draw. Australia were humiliated 47 all-out in the first test against SA before levelliing to a draw. SA was never in danger of losing those series, but their opponents always were.

  • POSTED BY SurlyCynic on | July 18, 2012, 21:04 GMT

    Harry Matthews: The 'hype' has been built on their away record. Last away series to Eng & Aus were wins, last away series to India was a draw. Last home and away results against England favour SA (win and draw) so it's up to England to beat SA to overturn this home and away record. England and India are terrible away from home.

  • POSTED BY on | July 18, 2012, 20:28 GMT

    South Africa will beat England by 1 test, swann's injury is the difference he more than Anderson and Broad will bother SA's batting line up

  • POSTED BY LourensGrobbelaar on | July 18, 2012, 20:12 GMT

    @Harry Matthews I presume you are referring to series wins, since SA has beaten all four the named teams in the last 3 years in matches. And a drawn series in India the last two times we played there has not been achieved by any other team recently in India. Both times SA won one test and India another. That said, this is an awesome England team, and a good SA Team. We also haven't lost a series in 6 years (except Aus in SA 2009), which again is better than anyone else.

  • POSTED BY on | July 18, 2012, 17:34 GMT

    This article and all the hype around the South African team amuses me. This is a team that hasn't beaten Australia, India, England or Pakistan in the last 3 years. They have almost been built up into the 'worthy of number 1' team by default; simply on the anti-English sentiments of the global (mostly Indian) cricket community. Mark my words: They will not even a win a Test in England this time around. The result will be either 2-0 or 3-0 depending on the rain at the Oval.

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  • POSTED BY on | July 18, 2012, 17:34 GMT

    This article and all the hype around the South African team amuses me. This is a team that hasn't beaten Australia, India, England or Pakistan in the last 3 years. They have almost been built up into the 'worthy of number 1' team by default; simply on the anti-English sentiments of the global (mostly Indian) cricket community. Mark my words: They will not even a win a Test in England this time around. The result will be either 2-0 or 3-0 depending on the rain at the Oval.

  • POSTED BY LourensGrobbelaar on | July 18, 2012, 20:12 GMT

    @Harry Matthews I presume you are referring to series wins, since SA has beaten all four the named teams in the last 3 years in matches. And a drawn series in India the last two times we played there has not been achieved by any other team recently in India. Both times SA won one test and India another. That said, this is an awesome England team, and a good SA Team. We also haven't lost a series in 6 years (except Aus in SA 2009), which again is better than anyone else.

  • POSTED BY on | July 18, 2012, 20:28 GMT

    South Africa will beat England by 1 test, swann's injury is the difference he more than Anderson and Broad will bother SA's batting line up

  • POSTED BY SurlyCynic on | July 18, 2012, 21:04 GMT

    Harry Matthews: The 'hype' has been built on their away record. Last away series to Eng & Aus were wins, last away series to India was a draw. Last home and away results against England favour SA (win and draw) so it's up to England to beat SA to overturn this home and away record. England and India are terrible away from home.

  • POSTED BY Supa_SAFFA on | July 18, 2012, 22:34 GMT

    Whenever SA has had a draw, it's been about as close to a win as you can get. India was about 4 overs away from losing the test series and no.1 ranking to SA when they took the last crucial wicket and secured a draw. Australia were humiliated 47 all-out in the first test against SA before levelliing to a draw. SA was never in danger of losing those series, but their opponents always were.

  • POSTED BY Juiceoftheapple on | July 18, 2012, 22:50 GMT

    England only a few years ago were in transition and disarray, every base is covered now, albeit the individual talent of the Saffers may be slightly higher. England are a complete unit with few weaknesses. At home, in the poor excuse for a summer, SA will get no easy runs; under grey skies, to packed stadiums, on lively wickets, all summer long the swinging ball has been destroying batting line ups, and only the most disciplined and pig headed have made runs. I cant see anything but an Englad win.

  • POSTED BY thruthecovers on | July 18, 2012, 23:31 GMT

    For some reason I can't comment on the article in question, and this is my first try admittedly, but for me the most telling stats between the two sides are the conversion rates from 50's to 100's. At home, Eng convert about 46% (34/73) of its 50's into 100's, while SA sits at about 73% (28/38) away from home. If generally accepted that this will be a bowler-dominated series, it becomes almost paramount for the batsmen of both teams to cash in when past 50. The stats shows SA batsmen to be more likely, but cricket is not played with a calculator nor is it on paper, therefore one should be carefull to draw too many conclusions from these stats or read too much into them. Makes for interesting reading all the same...As an Saffa I would like us to win but would settle for the best team to be the ultimate victor. If that proves ENG, then so be it. Cricket will be the ultimate winner in the end.

  • POSTED BY on | July 18, 2012, 23:52 GMT

    @Juiceoftheapple - "Disciplined and pig-headed"? Were you describing Graeme Smith or Jacques Kallis? Or Hashim Amla (not sure if pig-headed is accurate but he has batted for long periods in trying conditions before)? ;) I am looking forward to great cricket from both sides and a Test series worthy of the name. I want a South African series win but I'm just going to enjoy this series a day at a time. The wait has been hard but finally the battle begins!

  • POSTED BY Jonathan_E on | July 19, 2012, 0:09 GMT

    I predict a hard-fought 1-1 with one draw, which may or may not be rain-affected.

  • POSTED BY Hammond on | July 19, 2012, 3:00 GMT

    So near, and yet so far. Get used to the number 3 spot SA. And to all the anti-English brigade out there, prepare your various excuses gentlemen.