South Africa in England 2012 August 21, 2012

South Africa relentless and ruthless

The era of undisputed supremacy went with the Australians, but of the recent claimants South Africa's status as No. 1 would seem the most legitimate

In days and years to come, members of this wonderfully varied South African team will thank England for pushing them to the edge on the day of their coronation: the harder it is earned, the sweeter the victory feels. Sport can be cruel and England's inspired late charge threatened for a while to blur the differences between the sides - palpably stark over 12 out of 14 days in the series - to nothing. It would have been the most outrageous heist had England pulled it off, but it would have also been a travesty. The 2-0 in favour of South Africa was the most appropriate scoreline for the series.

How the wheel has turned. It was about this time last year that England were a picture of rapture and joy, having trounced the reigning No. 1 Test team. They had started at Lord's and ended at The Oval, gathering force and momentum as they went. The top order mounted big hundreds, the lower order blasted fifties on demand, the fast men had a ball, and England's spinner had the last laugh at The Oval. They looked commanding and complete, and set to rule the world for a while.

This time they started at The Oval and ended at Lord's, and like in 2011, they got better as the series went. The problem was that they had started with such a deficit that there was no catching up. The defeat in the opening Test was big enough, but even that did not truly reflect the true scale of their humiliation, so dragging the final Test to the last hour and then losing by 51 runs counted as a massive improvement.

The final Test provided the kind of contest he had been expecting all series, Andrew Strauss said, where one innings, one dropped catch, one good session, could decide the outcome. But even in the final Test, where England took a small first-innings lead, it was always apparent that South Africa had the match in their grasp. Throughout the game, England strained to break free, but the leash never loosened fully. South Africa were relentless and ruthless.

England's annihilation of India last year was far more comprehensive, and India were a broken side by the time the series ended, but South Africa's ascent to No. 1 must feel more satisfying, for they snatched the crown from their opponents in their own backyard. Gradually over the last few years England had acquired such mastery over their home conditions that, despite their series win here in 2008, South Africa entered this contest as slight underdogs. But by outbowling, outbatting and outsmarting England, they have left no margin for doubt. India have a chance of retribution against England this winter, but England will have to wait for three and a half years for theirs against South Africa.

The No. 1 spot in some ways is an outcome of pure mathematics. The era of undisputed supremacy went with the Australians; like the West Indians of the '70s and '80s, with them no rating system was needed. But of the recent claimants South Africa's status would seem the most legitimate.

India took the spot without ever winning a series in Australia and South Africa, and England did so without winning in the subcontinent. South Africa are the team with the most evenly distributed record in world cricket. They have lost only one Test series (of 18) in the last five years, at home to Australia in 2008-09, and though they haven't won in India in ten years, and lost to Sri Lanka the last time they played there, their record in the subcontinent has been the most impressive of all visiting teams.

They are led outstandingly by Graeme Smith, who, incredible as it may sound, is still getting better as a captain

More than the record, though, it is the manner in which they have been able to adapt that has distinguished them. In Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla they have two batsmen who are wonderful against spin bowling, and what separates Dale Steyn from James Anderson, who is a better swing bowler in favourable conditions, is the ability to persuade life out of slower wickets. His match-winning seven-wicket haul in Nagpur ranks among the finest performances on Indian soil in the last couple of decades.

They are led outstandingly by Graeme Smith, who, incredible as it may sound, is still getting better as a captain. As Ian Chappell pointed out quite astutely earlier during the series, perhaps having a legspinner in the ranks has brought out the aggressive streak in Smith. His declaration in the first Test, which left his side open to the possibility of having to chase a total, was refreshingly positive, and his decision to give Imran Tahir one more over on the last evening at Lord's when the new ball was available was decidedly bold and ran against given wisdom. Tahir almost rewarded Smith with a wicket. There is no doubt, unless he decides to give it up, Smith will captain South Africa in over 100 Tests, and that record will take some beating.

England's great strength during their rise to the top was the wonderful variety in their bowling. South Africa put them in the shade comfortably. The individual battles were won with almost ridiculous ease. Morne Morkel took care of Strauss, Vernon Philander hassled Alastair Cook, and Steyn came on to deal with Jonathan Trott. England's opening partnerships produced 122 runs in six innings, and three times the first wicket fell in the first two overs; the South African openers put on 307 runs and had two century partnerships.

It could be argued that England were below par - Stuart Broad was down on pace and spirit, Cook never got going after the first innings, and Trott had a middling series. In sport, though, there is also the truth that you are as good as your opponents allow you to be. Strauss came into the series with two hundreds against West Indies but ended it with a highest score of 37. His final stroke of the series was no stroke. It was a moment that captured England's despair.

That Strauss got away with the mildest of inquisitions at the post-series press conference was indicative of his stature in English cricket. But perhaps even the media was resigned to South Africa's superiority throughout the series.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on August 23, 2012, 20:48 GMT

    @Crass on (August 23 2012, 18:50 PM GMT) OK - I'll keep out of this one although I'm not a fan of people saying "this or that would have happened" (like the guy he was responding to)esp in tight games. It could just as well have been 1-1 after the 2nd test , fact is there are good arguments for and against England chasing down that total.

  • Saurabh on August 23, 2012, 18:50 GMT

    @JG - When I said SA had the edge hopefully it meant England still had a chance just that SA had a better chance. Also, if you found my reply to Chris_P offending, read what Chris_P had to say to Cool2Cool. I had found his post very condescending, that too when he was stating a wrong fact. I might have gotten a little carried away in my arguments but then what is a cricket discussion without some spice :).

  • Jon on August 23, 2012, 13:02 GMT

    @JG207- yeah I think you are right about we prefer being the hunters. If you look at English sport in general there is a trend of freezing when we get to the top. A good example is the English rugby team. After we won the WC2003 we went into complete freefall and there seemed to be little planning of how to maintain the position once we got there. All the focus of that rugby side was to win the WC, and if I remember correctly we only won 2 games in the following 6 nations. The same can be said of our cricket team, who have really struggled with the mantle of being no1. I think we should look to employ the model the GB cycyling team uses with the cricket side. It essentially breaks down every minute aspect of behaviour and gears it towards getting the best out of people. I am not necessarily critisicing what Flower has done, but that all ideas can become stale. The model we have does not need drastic changes but rather just fine tuning.

  • Sanjay on August 23, 2012, 11:33 GMT

    Good article and begs to wonder how effective the rankings system really is given England and India's time at the top.

  • Randolph on August 23, 2012, 10:28 GMT

    England, with only one true star, the South African Pietersen, were never a match for the South Africans, who Australia drew with. England are just no good and as throughout history, only got to #1 while Australia was re-building. And of course they kept it warm for us for the shortest period in history.

  • mo on August 23, 2012, 10:14 GMT

    @indianInnerEdge: you forgot ENG can't play spin if their life depended on it in the subcontinent... IND not being able to take 20 wickets in IND?!? that too against ENG?!? what are you talking about? :)

  • John on August 23, 2012, 7:53 GMT

    @Soso_killer on (August 22 2012, 23:17 PM GMT) My oversight , please forgive me

  • John on August 23, 2012, 7:52 GMT

    @Crass on (August 22 2012, 18:40 PM GMT) Chris has explained himself thoroughly as to why he thought England could still have won that 2nd test had it gone the distance. He didn't say they definitely would win did he? You then come out with the "How long have you been watching cricket for?" remark to which he replied and then you go and accuse him of thinking his views are more binding than yours. He's not said that has he? He gave reasons why he thought Eng might win and you gave reasons why you thought SA would win. Both valid enough , just that Chris isn't making out that your opinion is worthless just because it differs from his - please publish

  • Peter on August 22, 2012, 23:57 GMT

    @Crass.. Wise words, Too bad you don't follow them. Don't forget, you were the one who questioned my post, the one I & others are entitled to post. You ask a question, I answered, yet you still question my response? How about following your own advice? BTW< The fact I am still p;laying, see about 10 first class games every year, a couple of tests I feel enables me to make a sensible comment. You were the one who wrote off England's chances totally, all I said that they were in with a chance, gave my reasons, yet your pov appears the only one you think is correct? Like I said, follow your own advice.

  • Soso on August 22, 2012, 23:17 GMT

    @JG207 we also won in india in 2000 when hansie was captain

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