August 31, 2012

South Africa set for long spell at No. 1

Among the top four sides, they appear to have the best combination on and off the field. But they have to find de Villiers' best position and prepare for life after Kallis

There is something wonderfully appropriate about South Africa's ascent to No. 1 in Test cricket, indeed in all forms. They have long postured, threatened, have sighted the goal, briefly ascended it, but for a team that loves to play hard cricket have always given the impression of being vulnerable challengers. This time there is an air of permanency, though Australia, their old but currently underperforming adversaries, might change that in what promises to be a sumptuous series later this year.

I have always been intrigued by South Africa because they have always had the players to be the best. But I thought sometimes they looked upon every day as a battle to be won than as a game to be enjoyed; that their intensity consumed them rather than the opposition; that, having been away from international cricket for so long, they wanted to prove a point every time they took the field.

I got the impression - one derived from 100 yards away, sometimes a few 100 kilometres away - that they were constantly at war, hardly ever playing a sport. And that this intensity was probably part of their ethos.

I remember working with some of the best cameramen in the early years of South Africa's return. If their team lost, the normally fun guys turned sullen, locked themselves in and gave the impression of being vanquished in a duel in the jungle. You could try telling them that tomorrow would be another day but it never worked. They had lost and they almost punished themselves for it.

So what's changed now? Apart from the fact that Australia are in a difficult transition, and teams like India and England are struggling to play in overseas conditions, I think too that a couple of players have turned older, are starting to look back, maybe have acquired a different perspective; and two fine cricketers have made a telling contribution and taken the pressure away from some others.

And then there is Gary Kirsten: gentle, soft-spoken and a genuine giver in an atmosphere of testosterone-fuelled warriors. Scyld Berry was right when he said Andy Flower had to inject intensity into England while Kirsten had to do the opposite to help his charges relax. Tendulkar described him as the friend he needed post-2007. Maybe in the highly competitive, hugely driven world of high-performance people, a friend who works for their benefit is a factor that hasn't been studied enough. Eventually, a team that wins makes everyone around it, and often within it, look good, but it is just as true that winning comes from putting people in the best frame of mind to perform.

In 2003, soon after South Africa crashed out of the World Cup yet again, Kirsten spent a day in our studio and, rather stunningly at the time, suggested that the only way ahead for them was to erase the past and go with Graeme Smith, then only 23, as the captain. Smith was brash, sometimes arrogant, and great captains of the past often pointed out early shortcomings. But he has been excellent for South Africa, and along with Jacques Kallis, has defined this team.

Kallis has been their greatest cricketer post-apartheid, capable of being in a shortlist of their finest ever. And even now, as the bustle to the crease seems a little more forced, he continues to provide them with the kind of balance every other team can only dream of. He has been central to this ascent.

Now, he need no longer be the go-to man at all times. The arrival of Vernon Philander and the delightfully understated Hashim Amla will take the burden off him though he'll continue playing strong cameos.

It is interesting that even now praise for Philander seems a bit conditional. Critics seem to turn a little more demanding in evaluating him.

Not so with Amla, who, like Dravid, is emerging to be one of the most liked, most respectable cricketers in the game. Amla might be modest enough to say he isn't even the second best batsman in the team but on current form he is the best. He gives South Africa a sense of calm they haven't always enjoyed. There is a serenity to him that I saw with Buddhist monks in Bodh Gaya - present and yet detached, and a wonderful example of using faith to imbue yourself with calm and dignity rather than submit to more contemporary interpretations of it.

Amla and AB de Villiers will be the new core and Philander will allow Dale Steyn to be used more effectively.

But like with all outstanding teams there is the odd cloud on the horizon. South Africa need the brilliant de Villiers to play a greater role with the bat, and he has to play at No. 4 from where he can dominate. It worked very well in England where the presence of Kallis and Duminy in the top seven meant they were always a batsman and a bowler extra, but it will be sad if it means that de Villiers dilutes his role as a batsman. For him to be freed they will need a wicketkeeper who can bat at No. 7. They haven't found one yet.

South Africa will also discover that Kallis afforded them a luxury they must slowly learn to do without. That combination of skills comes rarely so they must either live with Duminy playing the fifth bowler's role or quickly groom a No. 6 who can take 100 Test wickets. Playing four bowlers will expose them to how the rest of the world lives.

Their reign at No. 1 will depend, as it always has with teams that aspire for greatness, on how the bowlers adapt to different conditions. But at the moment their batting looks stronger than Australia's or England's, and their bowling significantly better than anyone else's.

The No. 1 position has been on a short-term lease ever since Australia bowed out. In the current context, South Africa seem best placed to stay there a while.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here