December 21, 2008

No usurpers here

Why South Africa aren't really challenging Australia for No. 1 yet



South Africa will wonder what they have to do to dismantle Australia © Getty Images

Maybe Australia aren't the far-off-in-the-distance, dominant team in world cricket they used to be but they still aren't about to give up the No. 1 ranking in a hurry - certainly not to South Africa.

There are a few chinks starting to show in the Australian armour - the struggling Matthew Hayden, the lack of spin-bowling depth, and an injury to Stuart Clark - but the regeneration system is still in reasonable shape and a prolific Simon Katich and a rampant Mitchell Johnson are currently helping ward off the invaders. The South Africans have quickly learned, if they needed any reminder, that Australian cricket has an amazing capacity to produce players who are fierce competitors at the highest level.

The difference between two of Australia's nearest rivals, India and South Africa, is one of belief. Having beaten Australia recently the Indians believe they can go toe to toe with the No. 1 team, while the South Africans are merely hoping they can match it with the boys of the baggy green. And having had their batting order dismantled in one short, devastating burst by Johnson, the South Africans will once again be wondering whether they really do have the mettle to dethrone Australia.

There are other differences that favour India over South Africa in the race to unseat Australia. India has a well-balanced attack that has experienced a good deal of success against Australia, while South Africa's pace attack still only has the potential to rattle Ricky Ponting and company.

Then there's the captaincy. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a good, aggressive captain who challenges the Australians, while Graeme Smith relies on a conservative approach and rah-rah speeches. Smith showed at the WACA that reports of his improved captaincy after a number of close encounters with Shane Warne's mercurial leadership style have been greatly exaggerated.

Smith's failure to grasp the moment at the WACA hurt South Africa a couple of times, none more so than when he took off a probing Jacques Kallis late on the third day. In a fluctuating match this was an inexcusable lapse, which exposed a lack of feeling for a crucial game situation. Seizing their chance, a brazen Brad Haddin and a resourceful Jason Krejza powered away from their opponents and South Africa's big chance to grab a belief building win over Australia became a lot more difficult.

Contrast that with the growing self-confidence in the Indian team, which was greatly enhanced by their miraculous run-chase victory over England in Chennai. South Africa found themselves in a similar situation at the WACA but their lack of belief while bowling meant the batsmen had a far more difficult chase than should have been the case. Smith costs South Africa as a captain, though he certainly leads the way with the bat.

South Africa is a very determined team and they field as though their life depends on it but they play a conservative brand of cricket that isn't designed to overthrow Australia. India has learned that lesson and is even better equipped for toe-to-toe combat with Australia now that Dhoni has ascended to the Test captaincy.

 
 
South Africa is a very determined team and they field as though their life depends on it but they play a conservative brand of cricket
 

The fact that South Africa twice dismissed Australia's big three, Ponting, Hayden and Mike Hussey cheaply, and yet failed to subdue the batting line-up will have done nothing for their self-belief in this series. South Africa had a big chance to beat a vulnerable Australian team and they were on the verge many times, but like on so many previous occasions their bowlers couldn't summon up the match-winning effort.

In contrast, earlier this year India produced an amazing feat of self-belief to conjure up an unlikely victory at the WACA, a stirring performance that played a big part in their follow-up win at home against Australia.

Currently, India is energised by the formidable challenge of playing Australia while the prospect still intimidates South Africa. Also in India's favour: they challenged and beat Australia when they were in their prime. South Africa is only now challenging Ponting's aging and wounded team.

The real measure of where a team stands in relation to Australia is not a computer ranking but how they fare when they play the champions at home. India has displayed the nerve and skill to win matches against Australia on their turf and in the most daunting of venues, the WACA. They are the more worthy heir to Australia's throne.