South Africa in England 2012 August 21, 2012

No longer bridesmaids: how South Africa reached the top

With victory at Lord's, South Africa became the No. 1 Test team in the world. ESPNcricinfo looks back at the years that led to them reaching that goal

It took Gary Kirsten only a year to take South Africa to No.1 in the world, a time period that speaks to the strength of his unorthodox coaching methods and the swiftness with which he has brought change in the dressing room. It is also serves as an indication that maybe all this group of nearly men needed was someone to point show them which way to go to cross the finish line.

Since the rankings started, South Africa have occupied the No.2 spot more than any other team. They were there when the system as first introduced in 2003 and although they had a fluctuating start have always gravitated back there. Since 2008, they have been in that position for 45 out of a possible 56 months, part of the reason their status as cricket's bridesmaids stuck. They have always been widely acknowledged as having players who could achieve more but lacked the x-factor until now.

Here is how they got to the top:

A new era of South African cricket was born. It emerged out of the ashes of the Hansie Cronje saga and its aftermath, which included crashing out of the World Cup at home. The administrators opted for total change and appointed 22-year-old rookie Graeme Smith as captain. Kirsten, who would later coach the side, was also part of the squad. Key players at the time included Herschelle Gibbs at the top of the order and Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini as the premier seamers. Nicky Boje was the lone spinner and the middle order was a barely recognisable with Boeta Dippenaar and Neil McKenzie. Smith's tenure started with a whitewash of Bangladesh away, the drawn Test series against England, during which he scored the double hundred at Lord's and Ntini took 10 wickets, and a loss to Pakistan away. South Africa lost the series in Lahore, after Shoaib Malik and Danish Kaneria had ensured they were bowled out cheaply twice.

Rankings for the year: South Africa started in 2nd place and remained there for the full 12 months

A difficult travelling year for the team. After sweeping aside a declining West Indies 3-0 at home, they struggled on three away trips. They drew to New Zealand after coming back from a heavy defeat in Auckland to win in Wellington. The next two were series defeats which illustrated South Africa's main worry at the time - a continued battle to get a grip of subcontinental conditions. Their loss in Galle was caused by both spin - Sanath Jayasuriya took five wickets in the first innings and seam - Chaminda Vaas and Lasith Malinga shared nine between them in the second. It cost them the series. Batting also let them down in India where Harbhajan Singh's seven-for in Kolkata secured the series for India. Hashim Amla debuted in that series as did Thami Tsolekile who was tasked with keeping after Mark Boucher was dropped to try and trim his ego. The year ended with a loss and a draw to England in the home series.

Rankings for the year: Started in 2nd place, but by August had dropped to 6th, after the loss to Sri Lanka

A continuation of the problems against England mounted. A young AB de Villiers made his international debut in the series and opened for a period of time. Dale Steyn also made his first appearance for South Africa. Even victory in Cape Town and the return of Boucher could not keep South Africa afloat. They lost again in Johannesburg, against inspired Matthew Hoggard, and conceded the series 2-1. The rest of the year was easier, with Zimbabwe presenting little challenge and a fairly straightforward trip to West Indies. South Africa drew two matches and won two, with Ntini taking 13 wickets in Trinidad. Ray Jennings period as interim coach ended after his sixth month contract came to an end. Team changes were taking place: Andre Nel and his alter ego Gunter began to play alongside Ntini and Ashwell Prince was included in the middle order. Mickey Arthur was appointed ahead of the trip to Australia, which started with a draw in Perth.

Rankings for the year: 6th until August when wins moved South Africa to fourth. By December, they were back down again, to 5th

Arthur's tenure started in the worst possible way. Two series defeats to Australia in year that began with five losses in succession. South Africa were blanked 3-0 at home in a series where not even their best players could hold their own. They salvaged some pride when they beat New Zealand 2-0 in a three Test series played on the brink of winter but then set sail for a difficult trip to Sri Lanka. South Africa lost 2-0 with both matches played in Colombo. The first was remembered for the 624-run partnership Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara put on, something Steyn was reminded of recently and joked, "I've moved on from that in my life." Muttiah Muralitharan had South Africa in a spin in the second match, in which he claimed 12 wickets. It would be the last series away from home that South Africa lost as things began to change.

Rankings for the year: 6th for most of the year except May, when they moved to 5th for a month

After being stunned by India in Johannesburg, when they were bowled out for 84 in late 2006, South Africa came back to win the series 2-1. Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner, made his debut in Cape Town, from where he became a permanent fixture in the national side. Pakistan visited next and escaped with one win but were also eventually defeated. The major turning point came when South Africa travelled for the return leg. Jacques Kallis scored twin centuries in the match in Karachi to win it for South Africa. They returned 1-0 series winners. A crushing defeat of New Zealand later in the year, in which Dale Steyn took 20 wickets in the series and broke Craig Cumming's cheekbone. It was his major breakthrough. The year ended with a shock defeat to West Indies in the Boxing Day Test.

Rankings for the year: From starting in 6th place, South Africa began their climb in July, when they moved to fourth. A two-month setback saw them back down, but only as far as 5th in August.

South Africa rallied to win the New Year's Test in Cape Town and the following one in Durban and take the series against West Indies 2-1. The middle order of Prince and de Villiers solidified and Steyn continued to shine. Another sweeping of Bangladesh helped build up to a series in India, from where South Africa walked away with a 1-1 draw. Amla's century in the first Test in Chennai was overshadowed by Virender Sehwag's triple but de Villiers gave South Africa the lead with his double hundred in Ahmedabad. South Africa's seam attack of Steyn, Morne Morkel and Ntini dismantled India for 76 runs in the first innings. Harbhajan had the better of South Africa in the third game but Smith credits the series result as what set South Africa up for big things later in England.

A first series win in England since readmission came after a hard-fought draw at Lord's, a win at Headingley after centuries from Prince and de Villiers and another win at Edgbaston, through a Smith century. South Africa had ticked off a major box on their list. By the time the Boxing Day Test at the MCG at happened, South Africa had slayed another giant. Wins in Perth, through Smith and de Villiers hundreds, chasing a record 414, and Melbourne, after JP Duminy scored a scintillating hundred having made his debut the game before, gave them an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series.

Rankings for the year: Started the year in 4th and climbed to 3rd by April. The rest of the year was spent in 2nd place before slipping to 3rd in December

Not much Test cricket was played in this year but it started with a crash down to earth. Smith batted heroically at the SCG with a broken hand but could not save the match. South Africa were made to sober up after Australia defeated them 2-1 but de Villiers scored a hundred at Newland to save South Africa from total embarrassment. McKenzie, who had helped secure the win in England, paid the price for the losses and was left out mid-series. Nine months passed between that and South Africa's next Test assignment, against England at home. That series is one still remembered as one South Africa should have won. England got away with two draws at Centurion and Cape Town when they were nine wickets down. Ntini celebrated his 100th Test at Centurion but was dropped soon after with his age and lack of pace costing him. South Africa's defeat in Durban was the start of a run in which they lost their next two Boxing Day Tests at Kingsmead.

Rankings for the year: Occupied 2nd place until August when they summited to No.1 for four months. By December, South Africa were back down to 2nd

South Africa's first real chance of earning No.1 by themselves, and not relying on other results to get there, came when they toured India. At Nagpur, Amla scored 253 and Steyn took 7 for 59 to inflict a crushing innings-and-59-run defeat on India. Alviro Petersen debuted in the next Test in Kolkata and scored a century but South Africa lost and left with another draw and without the accolade they had gone there for. During the football World Cup in South Africa, the team were in the West Indies and eased to a 2-0 win. It was a forgotten tour because of the activity happening at home. Later in the year, they played Pakistan in the UAE. Flat, dead pitches were tailor-made for draws. de Villiers scored 278 in the second match in Abu Dhabi to break the record for the highest individual score by a South African. India arrived mid-December and the chance to contest for No.1 presented itself again. On a green Centurion pitch, South Africa beat India comprehensively and the power shift was believed to have started but in Durban, Sreesanth culled them and India were safe.

Rankings for the year: Spent the whole year in 2nd.

Kallis played in two monumental innings at Newlands, scoring a century in both with a side strain so painful the team doctor said it was akin to knife stabbing in the side constantly. The series against the Kirsten-led India was drawn and South Africa got a taste of what it took to be No.1. Another big break followed, during which they crashed out of the World Cup at quarter-final stage, a defeat that went on to have significant effects on the team. It was a loss that changed Smith because he became public enemy No.1 in its wake. He returned more humble than before to captain South Africa against Australia after their longest winter in 14 years. For South Africa to become No.1, they would have to win all five of their home Tests, three against Sri Lanka.

It started well for them. The first Test - Cape Town's first in November since the early 1900s - was a freak affair. After Michael Clarke's hundred, South Africa were bundled out for 96, before Australia were felled for a remarkable 47. Smith and Amla scored centuries in the chase. Two debutants were on show for South Africa, Vernon Philander and Imran Tahir, the Pakistani-born legspinner who had become eligible for the country at the beginning of the year. Australia came back to win a thriller at the Wanderers by two wickets and the chance to go top had passed. South Africa defeated Sri Lanka in Centurion on another seam friendly surface prepared with sub-continental batmen in mind but lost in Durban, again. Another debutant Marchant de Lange took 7 for 84 in the first innings of that match.

Rankings for the year: The first 10 months of the year were spent in year in 2nd place, November and December was in 3rd.

South Africa claimed their first series win at home in four years, since beating Bangladesh in 2008, with victory over Sri Lanka in Cape Town. A new ruthless streak emerged. South Africa went to New Zealand in March with the chance of becoming No.1 again but they would need to win all three Tests in a place they had not visited for eight years. Dunedin was the first stop and wintry weather prevented South Africa from completing a win despite centuries from Kallis, Smith and Jacques Rudolph. They triumphed in Hamilton, thanks to another Philander showing and then ran into Kane Williamson and Kruger van Wyk in Wellington. A 1-0 win kept their unbeaten streak on the road though and laid the platform for what was to come a few months later in England.

The Kirsten way came full circle. South Africa set off for a bonding trip in Switzerland with adventurer Mike Horn before the tour to learn how to be a community rather than just a team. That community was rocked on its first active day on tour when Boucher lost his left eye after being hit by a bail in Taunton. The bond grew ever stronger and South Africa went on to complete a 2-0 series win over England, which they dedicated to Boucher and the entire nation.

It came with Amla passing 300 and becoming the first South African to do so, with Steyn proving why he is the world's No.1 ranked fast bowler, with Philander climbing the rankings to No.2 and with Smith emerging and cricket's leading current captain. He even remembered to mention the 34 miners killed at the Marikana mine back home as part of his victory speech. He called the team "the best group of men," he had ever worked with and after they claimed the No.1 ranking, few would disagree.

Rankings for the year: 2nd until July, when they dropped to 3rd. Victory over England put them back at No.1.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent