South Africa: giants without laurels
Three-thousand two hundred and seventy eight days without a series loss away from home. Two series lost in almost 10 years. No. 1 ranking - twice.
They won on all cricket continents. Beating two No. 1-ranked sides on their home turf. And managed to not lose once in Asia.
That is a serious team. All this in an era when the cricket powerhouses have been conspiring against them. When their players have been busy with the IPL, or leaving for county cricket. When the common perception that winning away from home is so hard that independent curators, abandoning the toss, or some other new cricket ruling will be needed to help teams achieve the feat.
Any team that did all that would have to be one of the best Test sides of all time. They should be applauded for even existing. Heavily mourned for their demise. And we should be seriously discussing how great they are.
If this was an England, there would have been 73 books and 1.8 million editorials, about the how great this era of English cricket is. If this was Australia, their swagger and cockiness would be overflowing into every single cricket conversation. If this was India, the discussion about their greatness would have already been ruined by every single comment board on the internet.
But this is South Africa. And they are not the Big Three. Even when there were only three Test nations, they were still not really among the "big three". Their national press does not hype them, let alone overhype them. They are seen as men doing a good job, nothing more. In cricket terms they are not a cool team. They would rate low in the all-important "second favourite team category". They are known for bowling well outside off stump, for using spinners to dull your senses, for grinding, grim-faced innings, draws, and humiliating World Cup exits.
They fought internal politics. They fought historical prejudice. They fought richer opponents. They fought for their record. They fought for 30 series, losing twice, all in the shadow of the great TV markets.
They might be great, they might be giants.
There was little reason to note South Africa's loss to Sri Lanka in 2006. An Asian side winning a home series against a team that had been struggling for some time, in a two-Test series, is the kind that happens while you're doing other things. In their previous 12 series, South Africa had won only four. They had lost to Australia twice, India, England, and also Sri Lanka. Of their four wins, two were against West Indies, and one against Zimbabwe.
Graeme Smith's mouth had made more noise than his entire team had. In Sri Lanka he wasn't there. Neither was Jacques Kallis. Or Shaun Pollock.
In the first Test, Murali took 10. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene put on 624, breaking a world record, and South Africa. In the second Test the undermanned South Africa fought back, Murali took 12 and Sri Lanka hung on to clinch the series with a wicket to spare.
Both Tests got attention, but not really for South Africa. They were a small-market team, playing another small-market team, in a series not televised globally.
Other failures were telecast to a global audience.
Had Australia not won the 1999 or 2003 World Cups, it wouldn't have affected their Test legacy. West Indies lost a World Cup to Madan Lal in 1983 and then never reached another final in their era, and that didn't affect their legacy.
South Africa are different. Because of the way they have lost and the fact they haven't made a final, they are perhaps the only non-Asian team ever who have somehow managed to meld their limited-overs reputation into their Test reputation.
South Africa lost important Tests after readmission under pressure. They should have beaten West Indies in their first Test back - they were so cocky they had already ordered champagne. They had Tests against Australia that they should have won as well - Port Elizabeth in 1997 springs to mind. But they also beat Australia by 5 runs defending 117, and they beat Sri Lanka by 7 runs defending 177.
This is not a team that chokes in Tests. But we have all seen them choke, or miscount, or strop, or combust, or underperform at a World Cup. A team that has had some of the greatest one-day players in the world has, since the turn of the century, made one more World Cup semi-final than Kenya, and as many World Cup finals as Ireland.
Every time South Africa's greatness is discussed, even if only as a Test side, that dead World Cup albatross is slung around their neck.
After losing to Sri Lanka, South Africa lost another Test. India humiliated them at home by bowling them out for 84. The next Test South Africa won well. With the series 1-1, the deciding Test became important and India started well by going past 400. Smith dragged South Africa close with 94. Then in the second innings, needing 211, he made another 55; it was the first win of their new era.
But they weren't making big waves. Against Pakistan at home they were one-all with one to play as well, and they got home on a low-scoring battle by five wickets. They beat Pakistan in Pakistan 1-0, but had there been more time in the last Test, Pakistan were getting close to South Africa's total. They almost ended New Zealand as a cricket nation in a two-Test series. Smith and Neil McKenzie put on a world-record 415 opening stand in a win against Bangladesh.
In India they won the second Test by an innings and were on their way to a potential victory in the third Test before they collapsed to 121 all out. India won easily to draw the series. In England, Smith ended another English captain and they won the series before the last Test was needed. Then they beat Bangladesh again.
South Africa. South Africa. South Africa. South Africa. South Africa. South Africa. Draw. South Africa. South Africa. South Africa. Nine Test series, eight wins, one draw. But up next was the team who always beat them, stopped them, stepped on them.
Australia don't believe someone is good based on data, rankings or results. They believe based on the team beating them, in Australia. South Africa's reputation in Australia was of a team that was good against ordinary teams but failed against top teams. Not even that they were chokers - that they just weren't good enough.
For all the talent in South Africa, they always had weaknesses. Not big ones, but against Australia, any weakness, even ones Australia suggested you had, seemed big enough.
This was a different team. They had turned up with what would become three of the 10 highest-scoring batsmen during their reign. Hashim Amla would crush teams with his totals. AB de Villiers would be the evolution of modern batting. And the third was Graeme Smith.
Smith was a top-order monolith, bigger than any rising supergiant. He is not in the class of Amla or de Villiers, but he led when he batted. Every ugly push, disgusting flick and ill-timed drive was like a gnarled sergeant fighting his way through the swamp to overcome the enemy. But he also made a lot of these runs. The way he did it was important, but also that he did it so often: he gave one of the best batting line-ups in the game a base to be brilliant. While England had a Moneyball-like plan of bunting the new ball with their top three, South Africa's plan seemed to be to just let the new ball bump into Smith.
The 11th-highest scorer in that period was Jacques Kallis. Missiles could be flying overhead and the grass could be turning into venomous snakes with laser rifles and Kallis would still bat as he does. And he did in this era, but one small thing changed. His batting average was practically identical, but his conversion rate changed. Before, he had scored 24 hundreds and 40 fifties. In the era, he scored 21 hundreds and 18 fifties. He went past 200 for the first time. Maybe it was just experience, or maybe it was finally having a team of star batsmen around him.
There was also a new batting technique that the South Africans had pioneered to combat the many offspinners in the game. With the Asian fingerspinners bowling quicker, and coming wider of the crease to angle it in, it seemed like Amla, Kallis and de Villiers had decided to move themselves outside off stump to take the lbw out of contention, and give themselves access to endless leg-side singles.
Kallis' true value was what he should have always been, the man to turn a quality team into the best in the world. MS Dhoni has spent years frustrated that India cannot find a Test-match allrounder. Almost ignorant to the fact that in the history of Test cricket, there have been very few true allrounders. Kallis was a top-order batsman who turned a quality four-man attack into a quality five-man attack. If South Africa wanted to take a chance on their fourth bowler, they could, because they knew that Kallis was able to get wickets or tie up an end.
They also had Dale Steyn.
If the battle between bat and ball during South Africa's era had been a war, the bowlers would have been ended. All that would be left would be batsmen wearing necklaces made of bowlers' fingers.
The only real survivor was Steyn. From December 2006 to the end of January 2015, there have been 13 batsmen who have scored over 3000 runs at an average of over 50. There have been three bowlers who have taken more than 100 wickets at an average of less than 25. Steyn has taken 364 of them at 21.45.
He has been great on every single kind of surface cricket has managed to make. In this era he has 26 wickets more than James Anderson in 15 fewer Tests. He has 100 more wickets than Stuart Broad from four Tests fewer. He has 11 more five-wicket hauls than Mitchell Johnson from six more Tests. He takes a wicket every 40 balls. Averages 21 with the ball in India. He has only ever averaged over 40 with the ball in a series once. Not even appearing in an Adam Sandler film ruined his reputation.
South Africa have had five bowlers take over a hundred wickets in that time. Paul Harris at 37. Makhaya Ntini at 30. Morne Morkel at 29. And Vernon Philander at 22. All were good, but all had the advantage of Steyn being at the other end.
In modern cricket you need bowlers who can take wickets in Asia, who can intimidate, who can make the ball reverse swing, and most importantly, you need to be able to crowbar batsmen out on batting wickets. Steyn can do all those things, and he is a nuclear-grade crowbar.
South Africa had the world's best attack on most days, the ability to get wickets anywhere on any surface, several batting weapons, their best batting line-up against spin ever, and the virtual extra player that Kallis delivered. Then there was Smith's leadership.
With the bat, or with the press, battering ram when he needed to be, a human shield at other times. He gave the talent the room to grow behind him. He got the best out of average cricketers. He played up the nationalism angle. He abused de Villiers. He encouraged Morkel. He persevered with Harris. He allowed all that to happen in his giant shadow. They fought for and clung to their home record like he batted, and that is not a coincidence.
In Smith's first Test match he was dismissed by Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne; his first tour as captain he had also been hounded by them. Now they had left cricket and with them went Australia's automatic right to be the best team in the world. Australia were now held together by Ricky Ponting's fierce determination to prove everyone wrong.
No one had beaten Australia at home since 1992-93. Smith seemed psychologically scarred by touring there. Kallis had never been a force against them. Steyn had never played against them. And this time it was for the No. 1 title.
At the WACA, they were cruising in their first innings when they ran into something no one in Tests had seen before, the demon inside Mitchell Johnson. Johnson's amazing spell eventually meant that South Africa needed 414 runs to win the Test. Even without McGrath, Warne, and Jason Gillespie, the old South Africa wouldn't have chased it. They would have flirted with it, but they would have folded.
This team got there four wickets down. They looked like they were ready to fight for it, but they never even needed too.
The next Test they were 143 behind Australia with two wickets in hand for their first innings. Australia should have closed the innings and clawed back in the series. Steyn joined JP Duminy. When Steyn was out for 76, South Africa were 37 runs in front, and Duminy ended with 166. Steyn then went out and took half of Australia's wickets. South Africa chased down the 183 losing one wicket.
They had beaten Australia for the first time in a generation. They were the best team in the world, and now all they needed to do was win the next Test and they would be officially No. 1. They didn't. Still they fought to the end, Smith even walked out with a broken hand.
A few months later they hosted Australia, again a victory in the series would win them the No. 1 crown. They lost the series.
It wasn't until Australia lost the Ashes of 2009 that South Africa became No. 1. They held it for three months before India took it; South Africa hadn't even played a Test match during that time. They had won it and lost it without any battle.
The loss to Australia started something. A loss of form.
When England beat Australia in 2005, the entire nation embraced it. They had beaten one of the greatest cricket sides of all time. They also didn't win any of their next three series. And only two of their next eight.
South Africa's victory hangover wasn't much better. They may have been the world's No. 1-ranked team from August to October of 2009, but as they are finding out now, that is for historical performance, not a true reflection of where they were.
It wasn't that they were awful or that they lost, they just drew. Tests and series. A lot. England managed 1-1 in South Africa on the back of two amazing final-wicket draws. South Africa smashed the new No. 1 side India by an innings, and lost the next Test by an innings to draw that series. They played out two draws in the UAE against Pakistan. They beat India by an innings at home, lost the next Test, and drew the last one for another draw. They bowled Australia out for 47 in a strange win in Cape Town, but then with Australia in the worst form in modern times, they still managed to let them chase 310, eight wickets down.
Australia. Draw. Draw. South Africa. Draw. Draw. Draw.
They seemed to not be able to land killer blows. And as the No. 1 ranking changed from India to England, South Africa were drifting. It was South Africa who had beaten Australia at home first. It was South Africa who neither England or India had beaten. It should have been them. But they had earned their mediocrity. And what should have been a continuation of their greatest time became a handbrake, and in future will be an asterisk.
Even Smith's position was in jeopardy, and coach Mickey Arthur lost his job.
In June 2011, Gary Kirsten took over as South Africa's coach. He had just coached India to their World Cup win. He was known to be hands off, to let the players be players, while also heavily believing in the mental side of the game.
His first series was the draw against Australia. But South Africa won their next series, and their next. Whatever magic Kirsten had, whatever it was he said, or did, or didn't do, it worked. The fight came back, the form came with it.
By the time South Africa arrived in England in 2012, England were in their best form since 2005. They had taken the No. 1 crown off India the summer before. They had smashed Australia in Australia. They would shortly after beat India in India.
The first Test was at The Oval, where series usually end in England. England played like the No. 1 team on day one. There was something cavalier and arrogant about their play. And South Africa didn't have a great day, but they held in there. On day two, Hashim Amla started batting. On day four he stopped batting. His average against England had been 36; it was now 54.
England tried to come back. Kevin Pietersen very nearly did it on his own, but South Africa drew the next Test, and at Lord's they held their nerve to win by 51 runs. When Vernon Philander took Steven Finn for a golden duck, they had done something they had never done before - win the world Test ranking. Not been handed it in some secret hand-off but received it for beating the best opposition in the world. And this time, they kept it for a while.
They did all this with a handicap.
When a clearly finished Jason Gillespie was kept in the 2005 Ashes team, it wasn't because he was indigenous. The English side is often ethnically diverse, but not because of political interference.
It is only South Africa who had a racial quota to meet during this period. They are fighting the racial history of the country on the one hand, still not being able to pick from the majority of their nation on the other. Damned by history, damned by the present, and hoping they stumble into some utopia for the future.
In a perfect world the South African government's interference would take the form of setting up a bunch of cricket-specialty high schools. Finding the best talent in the country, regardless of gender or race, and turning them into the next generation of cricketers. coaches. Analysts. Physios. Make it so that in order to play cricket for South Africa you don't have to have been rich enough, or lucky enough, regardless of race, to go to a prestigious school. Their school systems have already produced some of the best cricketers in the world, the same cricketers who made this era, so why not use that, but make it for everyone, regardless of background.
Instead they weaken and confuse their team intentionally just to look like they are doing good. They should be having deeply moral and deeply confusing arguments about whether their team will appeal more to a young black kid if there is an extra player of colour in the side and they lose, or whether that young black kid would be more inspired if his team just wins more with what is already an ethnically diverse team and increasingly going to be one.
They could have fought for justice in transformation, and been even more a part of it, rather than seeing it as an enemy of cricket. Instead they fought their way to No. 1. That was their job, and few teams in the history of the game have done it better. But in South Africa, there is always the higher moral calling.
Even as they are winning, they were also fighting for recognition for what they had done. Australia had a flare-up and told the world about it. India went to No. 1 for the first time and it was treated like a special moment in human history. And England had a shorter, less impressive run than South Africa and started talking about their golden era.
While South Africa were clearly better than all three of their nearest rivals, they also had problems against them. South Africa have never beaten Australia in a Test series in South Africa. Since 2000, South Africa have not beaten England at home. South Africa have not beaten India in India. The first two are odd, and in both cases, they have come close. The third is not that unlikely, as India is the best home team on the planet in the last 10 years.
If South Africa were just trying to prove they are good, this wouldn't be a problem. They have beaten Australia in Australia, England in England, and never lost a series in India. But this isn't about being good; they are good, are they great? Is this too big a hole, when they already have another period where they went seven series for only one win?
The great sides in history had Test match win-loss ratios of 4 (Australia, 1930-1950), 4.1 (Australia, 1995-2007) and 3.6 (West Indies). South Africa's was 2.6.
Then there is how often they play. India, Australia and England never stop playing. Mostly each other. They are on a never-ending schedule, meant to milk the most TV ratings out of each cricketer before his body or spirit is defeated. The South Africans are on a pre-cable-TV Test schedule. They are more like gentlemen of leisure who occasionally turn up for Tests. While the other big nations think of themselves as world-famous cricketers, the South Africans seem to think of themselves as guys who play cricket. Maybe it is that extra rest, and that mindset that helps.
South Africa don't play in five-Test series. In this era they played in only two four-Test series. They have been able to keep their bowlers on the field, and not just with sticky tape and prayer, like some teams. Playing in small Test series, especially away from home, certainly helps to have more draws, and their away record, as amazing as it is, certainly has a lot of draws in it. They did not venture to the known worlds and conquer them - they travelled there politely and often kept the status quo.
Then there is the era itself. Batting-heavy, T20-dominated, politically compromised, and perhaps most damning of all, seen as a weak playing era. You can only beat the teams that they put in front of you, but if you are in a weaker playing age, you need to beat everyone with a foot in the air. South Africa haven't done that. And that is one of the problems of their legacy.
Can you say they ever truly overcame their bogey side when they couldn't beat them, even at near their worst, at home? Can you really say you were a great team if your record has holes against the three other best teams playing at the same time? Can you really say you are great if you lost at home in an era where playing at home almost guaranteed you a win?
How could they possibly have gone nine years without an away loss, including four trips into the snakepits of Australia and India, and not been great? Not to mention two series in the UAE, and one in Pakistan.
It doesn't add up. And that is part of the problem. If you ask 100 cricket fans, the chances are you won't get a majority who think they are great or a majority who think they aren't. You'll get more confusion. Greatness should be automatic. It should punch you in the face. It should be obvious. Greatness should be unquestioned.
South Africa are nothing but questions. Are they a side who don't land killer blows against good teams? Is their away record enough to go past the other holes in their records? Is their away record assisted by schedules? Are they a really good side in an average era?
This is certainly the greatest era in South African cricket. Before this, they have only ever had two really good runs in Test cricket. From 1998 to 2003 they had 24 Test series - they won 16, lost three to Australia and drew three in all. But they also lost a captain to match-fixing, had two embarrassing World Cup exits, and most importantly, they were not Australia in an era where it was very important to be Australia.
They weren't as cool as Australia, Pakistan and West Indies, even if Hansie was a '90s version of BMac. People liked Allan Donald and his zinc cream. But there were Wasim and Waqar, Curtly and Courtney, plus Glenn and Shane.
Their other era was played by ghosts, two series apart, when the world had already turned away from them. Names like Denis Lindsay, perhaps the prototype for attacking batting keepers; Mike Procter, so good they almost renamed an English county after him; Graeme Pollock, the best left-handed bat according to Bradman; and Barry Richards, perhaps the best of the lot.
None of those players are considered South Africa players by Cricket South Africa. They are not given official numbers; for CSA, South African cricket started in 1992. As idiotic, revisionist and ultimately pointless as this is, it's how sport works. Those men may not be counted by CSA, they may have only played a handful of the Tests they should have played, they may have only won two series, both at home, three years apart, but they are what people think of when they think of the best of South African cricket. Sports fans' memories might be short, or sepia-tinged, but they aren't fussed by the official version of events, just their gut feel.
To most, the '66 and '69 team that beat Australia are the gold standard, and part of the problem is, you can't compare a modern team that has played 78 matches to a ghost team. This South Africa, for all they have achieved, can't beat what many believe the other team would have achieved.
And then, after all those holes, they still had to fight for their record against Mitchell Johnson.
There was a meme of Steyn that appeared just after Australia, Mitchell Johnson, destroyed England 5-0. It was a picture of Steyn looking down the barrel of the camera, and the text said, "You beat England 5-0, that's cute." South Africa had won seven of their last eight series. They were playing a team who, despite their record in South Africa, did not travel well. Australia's batting had been held together by Brad Haddin's last quality Test series. Their momentum had come from famously enigmatic Johnson.
South Africa thought they were going to win. They might not have had the guidance of Kirsten or the balance and class of Kallis, but this was their time. To replace Kallis, they selected a combination of Robin Peterson and Ryan McLaren. You could replace Kallis with four players and it still wouldn't be enough. Johnson hit McLaren in the head. He barely survived the Test.
The South Africa era was already gone at that point. In Cape Town it would be confirmed that they still could not beat Australia at home, and that Smith was leaving. India didn't knock South Africa out like Johnson did, they bamboozled them with spin. England knocked them out with Ben Stokes' bat. It was over. And the team that fought, that clawed, that drawed, could barely bat or bowl by the end.
They deserved to be remembered for how they stood, not how they fell.
A sporting dynasty needs to be over two sporting generations at least. A handover that continues the greatness. That is what West Indies had. If you want to say Australia's era started in 1995, you could say the same for them. South Africa had no handover. This was one core group of players, whose careers happened to all overlap. That is an era.
In the history of the sport there haven't been many eras this successful. Since the 1930s, when Test cricket opened up to more than three sides, there have been four standouts who have been successful home and away, for a long period of time. West Indies '76-'95, Australia '95-'07, Australia during and just after Bradman's career, and England '51-'60. Then there is a gap. Australia were good in the early '70s, but ran into the twin powers of Kerry Packer and West Indies.
But no other team has strung together a record like what South Africa have just finished. No team other than West Indies has ever gone this long without losing away from home.
The biggest problem, much like with the English team of the '50s, is what legacy they leave. West Indies gave us raw, brutal, beautiful, endless pace. Old Australia gave us Bradman. Modern Australia gave us punchy, thuggish, quickfire scoring, and the second coming of legspin. This South African team is much like you would expect a South Africa team would be, only more so. The dynamism of de Villiers aside, this is a clinical, efficient, cricket machine. It's not a legacy, it's the tagline of a straight-to-video movie.
They have no legacy. They are not a big-market team. They are probably not a great team.
But they are one of the best five teams of all time. They are giants. They might have to fight in foreign lands for their era to be remembered and respected.
They are used to that.
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber