December 7, 2012

Hail South Africa

They are the deserved world No. 1, and this may well be their best team in a generation

While some of us in India dramatise the effect of 22 yards of turf, cricket has shown this week that when armed with a bit of spirit, home advantage isn't the overwhelming force it is sometimes made out to be. England and New Zealand, hardly the best travellers traditionally, overpowered what were once fairly strong garrisons. And having defended stubbornly in Adelaide, South Africa vanquished Australia in Perth, playing the kind of cricket that must make other nations queasy. It has been another magnificent season of Test cricket.

Not one of the three visiting teams had to huff and puff to sneak a result in; they didn't win by a nose, more by a couple of lengths. New Zealand's very impressive young core of Kane Williamson, Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell and Tim Southee helped New Zealand beat Sri Lanka by 167 runs. England, powered by a new captain, two fine spinners and a modern genius won by ten wickets on a home-made pitch, and South Africa, well... in spite of some irrelevant slogging at the end, beat the Aussies by 309 runs. It could easily have been 400.

The last of those was perhaps the most significant because it signifies to me the coming of age of the best South African team since their readmission in 1991. If everyone is fit, South Africa will play Graeme Smith (8569 runs at 49.53), Alviro Peterson (1387 at 40.79), Hashim Amla (5323 at 50.69), Jacques Kallis (12980 at 56.92 to go with 282 wickets at 32.57). AB de Villiers (5894 at 49.11), Francois du Plessis (293 in two Tests), JP Duminy (789 at 37.57), Robin Peterson (194 at 24 and 20 wickets at 33), Vernon Philander (267 at 21 and 67 wickets at 17.98), Dale Steyn (834 at 14 and 299 wickets at 23.79), and Morne Morkel (649 at 13.8 and 164 wickets at 30.20)

It is a staggering line-up, with the batting fit to compare to any in the last 30 years, and the pace attack is quite the best in the world at the moment. They field brilliantly and have an extraordinary athlete as wicketkeeper. If there is a weak link at all, it is with spin. Imran Tahir was never going to be the wristspinner they craved, though Peterson is a worthy trier. But with a fair degree of instability with other contenders, South Africa look good enough to keep their No. 1 status longer than any of the other recent holders of that distinction.

And it is a team of varying personalities. Smith is secure as Test captain, scores his share of runs, and you realise with a bit of a start, given how long he has been around, that he is still only 31. It is not inconceivable that he could have his best years ahead of him. As could four other batsmen in that line-up. Amla, surely at the height of his powers, is 29, du Plessis is 28, Duminy is that age too, as is the man I believe is the most remarkable cricketer in the world today, de Villiers. If Kallis can give them two more years and 20 overs a game, they could rule for long.

South Africa's is a staggering line-up, with the batting fit to compare to any in the last 30 years, and the pace attack is quite the best in the world at the moment

In two matches in Australia we saw two completely different facets to de Villiers. Battling to save the game in Adelaide, he batted 220 balls without a boundary for 33. The runs were insignificant compared to the approach. And then in Perth the natural strokeplayer in him emerged and 169 came from 184 balls. Very few players in the modern game can switch roles with such ease. Remember, he has only recently started keeping wicket in Test cricket - and he does that as well as anyone else. Before that he easily found a place in a list of the best fielders in the world. At the IPL this year he produced one of the most stunning displays of inventive batting I have ever seen. Against Dale Steyn steaming in. De Villiers is some cricketer!

Allan Donald thinks this is the best pace attack South Africa have had since readmission, and even if that is the view of a doting elder brother, the attack is still the best in the world at the moment and a handful on any surface. In the modern era a bowler who takes wickets at less than 25 per is rare. South Africa have two in Steyn and Philander, and Morkel could well be embarking on the best phase of his career. While Kallis can no longer crank those muscles up to deliver 140kph, he is still sharp over short spells, which is really all that South Africa need.

I still believe Donald himself at his peak, with Shaun Pollock, a young Kallis and Lance Klusener might outperform this bowling line-up, especially since Pat Symcox or Paul Adams might have provided better spin support. But this team outbats even as distinguished a side as Gary Kirsten, Herschelle Gibbs, Daryll Cullinan, Kallis as he was at the turn of the century, Hansie Cronje and Jonty Rhodes. Yes, this has to be the best.

And meanwhile Test cricket continues to bloom, as I write this after day one of the Test in Kolkata where for six hours bat and ball were locked in the kind of contest no other sport can provide.

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

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