March 19, 2013

Are South Africa a durable No. 1?

Their predecessors in the position had short reigns but Graeme Smith's team might just be the real deal

The tributes were not all one way when Ricky Ponting played his farewell Test in Perth late last year. After Graeme Smith formed his South Africans into an honour guard to welcome the Australian champion to the crease one last time, Ponting's post-match remarks included a sincere reciprocal compliment. Musing on the session after tea on the second day, when Smith and Hashim Amla put the Australian attack to the sword at eight runs an over, Ponting recognised a qualitative graduation in South African cricket.

"That was them trying to impose themselves on the series, and they did it better than I have seen any team take a game away from the opposition before," Ponting reflected. "A lot of the other teams we have played against over the years that have been in a position like that have been too scared to do that and push the game forward. What they did… was a sign that they had total belief in what they were doing." He was observing that the Proteas - ever competent but sometimes reticent - had moved their cricket to a new and intimidatory pitch of proficiency. From Ponting, this sounded especially resonant: his special subject here was not cricket but victory itself, about which the first Test cricketer to feature on a hundred winning sides might be expected to know more than a little.

The last few years have not been kind to dynastic thinking. Since Australia finally surrendered Test cricket's blue riband at The Oval in 2009, both India and England have been tried and found wanting, especially abroad, as world No. 1s. But in the rise of South Africa, are we now seeing the outline of a new global force to dominate all comers?

Their man-for-man strength is assuredly impressive. In "Notes to The Waste Land", TS Eliot enlarges on the lines in his poem referring to a mysterious extra presence in company ("another one walking beside you") by invoking an account of an Antarctic expedition where "it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted".

I'm reminded of the sentiment every time I scan a South African team sheet, when the 11 names seem somehow to encompass eight batsmen, six bowlers, until recently a couple of keepers, and four or five players who could be described as "leaders" in addition to the one, Smith, who officially leads.

In part, that's the Kallis effect at work: Smith has at his disposal a No. 4 batsman who can swing the old ball reverse at 140kph, and might at a pinch take the new ball as well. But there's more to it still. Ten batsmen in their squads of the last year have Test centuries to their credit (Smith, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy, Alviro Petersen, Jacques Rudolph, Dean Elgar and Ashwell Prince), and four others half-centuries (Dale Steyn, Robin Peterson, Vernon Philander, Albie Morkel). On the same lists, meanwhile, they have seven bowlers who have taken bags of five at Test level (Steyn, Peterson, Philander, Kallis, Morne Morkel, Marchant de Lange and newcomer Kyle Abbott). No international team matches them; no international team is even close. While the sempiternal Kallis is 37 years old and the openers each 32, the team's core members (Amla, Steyn, Morne Morkel, Philander, du Plessis, de Villiers, Duminy) all fall into that cricketing prime of the ages from 27 to 29. Growing up and maturing together lends itself to cohesiveness on the field and off.

Indeed, for all the individual brilliance the Proteas aggregate, it is their pride and purpose as a unit that most stands out clearly. Perhaps the most impressive dimension of their credentials as No. 1 is their record of having not lost a series on the road since 2006. Both India's and England's leadership pretensions dissolved quickly, India's outside Asia, England's in Asia. South Africa, by contrast, travel as assuredly as Patrick Leigh Fermor. They have inflicted heavy defeats on India in Nagpur and Ahmedabad in the last five years. England and Australia, where they have won consecutive series, hold no terrors for them.

Many factors go to a team's effectiveness away from home: experience, versatility, preparation, leadership. The South Africans seem to harness all these to a high level of trust among their senior membership: Smith, Kallis, Amla, Steyn, de Villiers, their erstwhile team-mates turned coaches Gary Kirsten and Allan Donald, and not least their long-serving manager Mohammed Moosajee. Almost every Test team has been plagued by off-field incident, rumour and innuendo in the last year. But since Herschelle Gibbs turned T20 troubadour, South Africa's team has achieved an almost tedious collective equanimity.

The Proteas' status as Test cricket's No. 1 is the more remarkable because it has been achieved in spite of the dysfunctionality of the surrounding administration - a tribute to the cordon sanitaire round the team created by its backroom staff

Where are their limitations? There is the abiding one of slow bowling, Robin Peterson holding the fort since Imran Tahir was dashed against Adelaide Oval's truncated boundaries, but at 33 unlikely to be a long-term solution. Their outcricket can look a bit lacklustre too, with some slow movers and weak arms; and although they are blessed with probably the world's two best slip catchers in Smith (160 catches in 110 Tests) and Kallis (194 catches in 162 Tests), drafting AB de Villiers as a keeper has cost them their most explosive and ubiquitous fielder.

Perhaps their greatest challenge, however, is the flip side of the aforementioned record on the road. For whatever reason, South Africa have reserved their greatest disappointments for home audiences: their defeat by Australia in 2008-09; their failures to do better than draw with England in 2009-10 and Australia in 2011-12.

Then coach Mickey Arthur put the first of these down to the Proteas' brief brush with No. 1 status after defeating Australia in Perth and Melbourne in December 2008. "Agents, managers and promoters were all over us - including me!" he recalls in his autobiography. "Offers to speak at dinners, breakfasts and lunches came thick and fast, while endorsement deals with very attractive numbers but nonetheless problematic distraction… If you weren't doubling or tripling your salary, then you were wondering why not and looking at your team-mates who were. Envy? Suspicion? There were several new emotions and feelings within the squad. Administrators, too, were wondering what their cut was."

This last line proved especially prescient, for when IPL2 landed in South Africa's midst in April 2009 like a giant starship with a dollar-powered warp drive, the long-term impact was an administrative mayhem from which Cricket South Africa has still to recover. The Proteas' status as Test cricket's No. 1 is the more remarkable because it has been achieved in spite of the dysfunctionality of the surrounding administration - a tribute to the cordon sanitaire round the team created by its backroom staff. With its chequered and repressive history, South Africa is a tough country in which to get anything done: violent, corrupt, politicised, polarised. Perhaps, in a reversal of the norm, it is actually easier for Smith's team to play to its potential abroad: the distractions are fewer, the expectations neither so intense nor so direct. When South Africa started dominating Australia at Perth late last year, as Ponting observed, they looked like neither an away team nor even a home team; they looked like conquerors and occupiers.

It's just gone a decade since that ruinous, rain-soaked night at Kingsmead when South Africa blew a chance to progress in the World Cup they were hosting, which spelt the end of Shaun Pollock's captaincy and the advent of Smith's. For Smith it may bode well that the next World Cup two years hence, which would perfectly climax his distinguished career, is in Australia.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on March 22, 2013, 5:56 GMT

    Gideon - You're right about the formidable "South African team sheet"! Australia's "secret dossier" of specific plans to wage "psychological warfare" on each SA player - with "verbal attacks" on Amla - obviously self-destructed. Ponting claimed: "We've done our homework on all of their players"! Homework-gate? Mickey Arthur the former SA mentor had his Oz boys mug up the answers. Or so he thought. He was outfoxed by super-master Gary Kirsten. After all, he had his boys train hard last summer on an Alps expedition with Mike Horn the adventurer. Even Kallis beat his fear of heights! Who needs Antartica? Result: SA beat the Poms in England. Gary also had Mike conduct motivational sessions for Team India, who went on to win WC 2011. The Kirsten-Dhoni led team also rose to the throne in Tests. With BCCI & IPL to contend with! Then Gary left for SA. India lost the crown to England. Will king SA hang on to it? Maybe with Kirsten around. Who knows? "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown"!

  • Harsh on March 22, 2013, 4:02 GMT

    They have the potential to emerge as an all-time great side with the depth in their pace bowling and their strong batting line -up.Above all this Proteas unit has a will to win -more than any past top South African Unit.Last Summer in England they displayed resilience not displayed by any of the S.African sides since they re-emerged into the International arena.However one must not forget the instablity and inconsistency of top teams in recent times in test cricket and S. Africa's decline in the past when reaching the top.Another factor is that the opposition is not as strong as it was in earlier decades with the decline in Australian cricket a major factor.Let us wish South Africa all the luck in consolidating their berth at the top and becoming a truly great side.

  • David on March 21, 2013, 0:47 GMT

    @ pipsonian wrote "South Africa really struggled against Pakistan in UAE." The records prove him to be completely wrong. Both tests were drawn, but the innings figures tell if SA "struggled," or not.

    1st test, SA scored 380 at a run rate of 3.08. Pak replied with 248 at a 2.61 run rate (RR). SA declared their 2nd at 318/2, RR 3.34. Pak secured the draw with 343/3 at RR 2.93. Overall, SA scored 107 more runs at 3.2 per over to Pak's 2.78 per over, & SA lost one less wicket.

    2nd test, SA scored 584/9 dec @ RR 3.81. Pak scored 434 @ RR 3.01. On 203/5, @ RR 3.69, SA again declared, & Pak batted out, 153/3 @ RR2.28. SA scored 200 more than Pak at a RR of 1 per over more.

    SA scored more runs, at a higher run rate, declared 3 times in 4 innings, and lost no more wickets than Pak, who played tuk tuk on dead wickets. By no stretch of the imagination, under any circumstances, did SA struggle in the UAE, scoring 307 more runs at a higher RR in EVERY innings. That is just NOT struggling.

  • Sam` on March 20, 2013, 22:47 GMT

    Sorry, Anindya Sen, but exactly what 'big stages' have South Africa choked on in recent times in the test arena (especially given that this story is about Test cricket). I'd have thought 3-down for not many with 4 sessions to bat out in Australia was a pretty big stage. They didn't choke then did they? What about the series decider in Perth, where they were looking to become just the second team (behind themselves, ironically) to win in Australia for 21 years? From memory they bashed Australia to smithereens, which would suggest they didn't choke. What about their trip to England? Did they choke in the series opener against their main rival for top spot? Because as I recall they made 600 and flogged them. Did they weather the storm in the second test from Pietersen? As I recall, they did. Did they snuff out Prior and Swann's final fight in the third Test? Records suggest that they did.

  • David on March 20, 2013, 22:44 GMT

    @ Mr Gupta. Yes - India & SA drew their last 2 series & SRT scored 2 centuries in each. But that's not the whole story. Satchin was outplayed in both.

    SA 1st test, SRT 36 & 111*. Kallis 201*, Amla 140, & AB 129. (1 inngs only.) 3rd test SRT 146 & 14*. Kallis 161 (last dismissed) & 109* with BROKEN RIBS.

    Series batting: Kallis 498 runs, ave 166. SRT 326 runs, ave 81.5. Kallis: twice the ave, a double ton, 2 tons in 1 match. Twice player of match, player of series.

    India, 1st test. SRT 7 & 100, Sewag 16 & 109. Kallis 173 & Amla 253* (1 inngs only.) 2nd test. SRT 106, Sewag 165, Laxman 143 & Dhoni 132 (1 inngs only.) Peterson 100 & 21, Amla 114 & 123*.

    Series batting: Amla 490 runs, ave 490. Sewag 290 runs, ave 96, SRT 213 runs, ave 71. SRT did well, Sewag did better, but Amla: double SRT's runs, ave 7 TIMES HIGHER, century EVERY inngs incl. a double, dismissed just once - twice player of match, player of series.

    Next time, tell the whole story, Mr. Gupta. It's called "the truth."

  • varsha on March 20, 2013, 21:16 GMT

    Apart from talk of Smith's retirement (the man just turned 32!), another annoying trend in the comments is to differentiate whether SA 'won" or 'just barely won". What does it matter how close it was if SA won anyway??? I mean, SA themselves used to "almost win" all the time in the 1990's - does that even mean anything? If "almost won counts then SA should be the best team of that period. But no, everyone kept referring to it as "CHOKING". And now, when they win by a narrow margin - everyone says the other team almost beat them, how about saying the other team ChOKED. People are so hypocritical and your bias against SA is glaring when you bring up this ridiculous point about HOW they won.

  • Shahid on March 20, 2013, 20:50 GMT

    SA is not the best cricket team at the present but yes they are the best test team. Wat made Aus different was tht they beat all teams in all formats. 16 undefeated test series, 3 ODI wrld cps in a row and had they stuck together for a little while, they would have been the best T20 team. See SA against Pakistan in the recently concluded series, there wasn't much to separate the two teams except the first test. On lot of occasions SA struggled against Pak's bowling and Pakistan had their selection problems. Lot of people forget past when in the company of present. South Africa really struggled against Pakistan in UAE and that is once again their next challenge. If they surpass that obstacle, they will enhance their test status a great deal and they MIGHT even surpass Australia in the TEST arena but they need to go beyond that and win 2 or 3 world cups in a row to really be serious contenders for the best all round team & not just a test team. I think Pak will be very tough for SA

  • varsha on March 20, 2013, 20:47 GMT

    It's amazing how many people are speaking about Graeme Smith's retirement. For heaven's sake, he just turned 32. He is fit and as a specialist batsman, he has more longevity than a bowler or all-rounder. I guess people tend to think he is a lot older than he is because he became captain at such a tender age, that it seems he has been playing forever. He can well play for a good 6-7 years if he keeps form, so stop talking about his retirement already - if you're Indian please redirect your retirement focus on one Mr Tendulkar, who plays less for the team and more for bloating his runs and records.

  • Bored on March 20, 2013, 18:52 GMT

    ..contd. Having said that, this team is DEFINITELY going to be a force in Eng, SA, Aus, NZ, WI for as long as they keep churning out the quicks like they are currently. (Abbott, Kleinvelt, de Lange, Morris. To add to Morkel, Steyn, Philander). 2years down the line, Australia will be a force to reckon with IF they can turn things around. Eng have a chance to go from good to great. But Id be really interested in seeing Ind & Pak. What after their current lot of greats retires? Can they become a global force again?

    Exciting times to be a cricket lover! :-)

  • Bored on March 20, 2013, 18:51 GMT

    Sadly i have to agree with @Malay Samant on this one. And being an Indian fan, Im a lil embarassed at the tone of some of our fans. I think its admirable to be passionate about our team, its a lil silly to start shouting down the achievements of another team. Before we get too excited, I think its still time to ponder our recent 0-8 whitewashes.

    Back to the article, I strongly think SA is DEFINITELY on top atleast next 2yrs. But once Kallis and Smith depart-I genuinely think its going to be a lil difficult. Also, I am not so sure of the bench strength that SA possess. I understand that a team of Smith, Amla, Kallis, AB, Faf, Duminy is incredibly intimidating (as an ode to the Fab Four of Indian cricket, Id like to call em the Super Six!) as a bowler, but do they have batsman to back them up? Again, the victories in the subcontinent were largely on the back of Steyn's superlative performance. Do the Saffas have a replacement for Steyn? Or a spinner to win them matches in the SC? contd.