South Africa v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Cape Town, 4th day February 17, 2013

South Africa excellent, but not yet great

South Africa are undoubtedly the best Test side at present but they still have much to achieve to be considered among the all-time great teams

One way of judging how much a series victory means to a team is perhaps by the scale of their celebrations. South Africa's recent ones have involved singing the team song on the pitch. They sang it at Lord's, they did it in Perth and at Newlands, after beating Pakistan. They did not do it in Port Elizabeth, after their resounding triumph over New Zealand.

Success over Pakistan is highly valued, as was evident when the squad emerged two hours after the winning runs were scored, dodged the sprinklers that were watering the outfield and formed a huddle on the pitch. They did their thing and left to the sounds of the occupants in one of the hospitality suites chanting, "Happy Birthday," to AB de Villiers, who turned 29 today.

The result gave South Africa breathing room at the top of the Test rankings, a sixth consecutive series win, a 14th unbeaten Test match in as many months, and Graeme Smith a fifth consecutive Test win, the longest such streak in his captaincy. Those numbers make it sound like the start of a dynasty but to call it that would be premature.

South Africa are a worthy No.1 side and of the three teams to have had that honour recently - England and India being the other two - they seem to have the right mix of personnel and personality to stay on top for a period of time. South Africa's batting line-up has been described as among the best at the moment, but it is the bowling that has been the centerpiece of their success.

The pace pack of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, and the added value of Jacques Kallis, has been compared to the greats of old - the 1980s West Indians, although South Africa lack the same terrifying pace in every one of their bowlers, or the Australian attack of Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie, but South Africa don't have the equivalent of Shane Warne.

Their first-choice spinner at the moment, Robin Peterson, had a massive impact on this Newlands Test but by his own admission you had to "deal with what you have." He does not turn the ball prodigiously, and doesn't often get favourable conditions at home, and he has learned to work within these boundaries.

So how close are South Africa to establishing their reign as an era? The mighty West Indies went 29 series without defeat. The closest anybody came to that was Australia, who did not lose for 16 series. South Africa just completed their 12th without losing. It puts into perspective how much more there is to achieve before they can consider themselves among the all-time greats.

They are, however, giants in their own country. This is their longest unbeaten streak, beating the 11 between 1998 and 2001. They are also close to completing seven years of being unbeaten away from home. They are part of an environment that is more competitive because the top teams are not far apart. This match was an example of that.

South Africa were made to work for their victory. Younis Khan and Asad Shafiq's twin centuries along with Saeed Ajmal's ten wickets gave South Africa's their first strenuous workout of the summer.

Ajmal really made them sweat. The world's premier spin bowler proved difficult to pick on a surface that suited him far more than the one at the Wanderers. It will give South Africa's batsmen something to think about, for the next Test in Centurion and for the test after that, in the UAE.

There is territory Smith's team has not conquered. They haven't won in India, Sri Lanka or the UAE. They have the opportunity of crossing the Emirates off the list later in the year. Until then, parties on the pitch will have to do.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mukund on February 20, 2013, 3:35 GMT

    You should specify that it is SA under Smith that has not won in India. SA as a team has indeed won a Test series in India. 2 match series that they won 2-0 in 1999/2000 if I recollect...

  • Dummy4 on February 19, 2013, 15:30 GMT

    I do not care whether this SA team is great or not. I just know they give me endless pleasure watching because they never give up, play positively and in the right spirit, do it for their country, supporters and themselves. They are representative of all population groups in the country and serve as a uniting factor. The last SA teams that were that good were those led by Peter vd Merwe (1965 -1967) and Ali Bacher (1970). It remains a shame that they could never play the West Indies during those years because Australia (3-1) in 1966/7 (Bob Simpson) and Bill Lawry (4-zip) in 1969/70 could not test them at all.

  • Dummy4 on February 19, 2013, 14:45 GMT

    A person that says kallis do not play attractive innings must be stupid. Who have the most elegant technique? Drives the ball for 4 effordless through the covers, straight, onside, backfoot drive. He's consistant,scores runs everyware and during the early part of his carreer carried our batting. He was our banker. Since Amla came to the team and scored consistantly he is playing with more freedom.Unlike some great he batted the bulk of his carreer at 3 and 4 and not 6 like that person. If i want somebody to bat for my life it would be him. He saved us from a lot oflosses and with his runs scoring allowed us to win games.

  • Dummy4 on February 19, 2013, 13:50 GMT

    "Kallis is a great batsman no doubt. But he has played very few dominant or even attractive innings,either in SA or elsewhere around the world. That is the reason I say he is not in the league of all time greats. Just going by averages and difficulty of circumstances(ignoring uniqueness) he may be regarded as better than Sachin,Ponting,Lara."

    Attractive innings???? what do you mean by that? as for dominan neither Alan Border or Steve Waugh were particularly dominant batters but you ask any australian if there are two other batsman they would want to bat for their lives in the last 30 years?

    What I dont get is why people don't accept results and always talk about fantasy? fact is this Current SA has team has lost one series in the last 23 are unbeaten away from home for six years! there is currently no other team currently who can boast that! the windes and aussies of old have no bearing on whether SA are the best current team now!

  • Dummy4 on February 19, 2013, 13:27 GMT

    let them come come to UAE .Pak cleansweepd england in UAE ans same will be done to this so called no 1 test team and at that time england was no 1 nd we must not compare this SA Team to the greats of past becos they are always dependent on three to four players of their team rest perform randomly .....therz no consistancy like the olds of aussies and windies

  • Casper on February 19, 2013, 13:08 GMT

    Oh well for those that turns a blind eye to the current SA teams performance is missing a great deal of history I rather enjoy the ride enjoy the match and smile at those that do not want to accept the teams current form and shout not good enough. Problem is if you do not watch it you might miss the moment SA is termed as great and everybody except you guys will recognise the moment. I do not want to miss it so for me they are the best and that for me is enough ... :) enjoy the ride do not miss the matches or you might miss the moment of greatness as well and may never have the guts to admit that they are great even when they are

  • Wesley on February 19, 2013, 12:37 GMT

    Cricket is not a game of if's and but's, "if this happened, but for that". Are you lot going to honestly tell me that there were no times that the "Great" Windies or Australian teams did not have to dig down deep backs to the wall to win a match or series?, are you telling me they blew away every team every match for their entire era of dominance.

    South Africa since readmission have won test series in each of the sub continent nations, twice in Pakistan, three in Bangladesh, one in India and Sri Lanka, yet these teams have not won a series in South Africa. Since we are talking about that, if these South African pitches made bowling easy then why is it these teams have not managed to win. It works equally for both teams.

  • Soso on February 19, 2013, 8:43 GMT

    @Papa_Tango is that the same Ajmal who was bullied for over 4 runs an over in Joburg? Is that the same Ajmal that SA "cant play"?

    The "context" of his wickets in the second innings was that SA were going for quick runs and threw their wickets away at the end. The 4 wicket margin of victory flattered Pakistan to be honest. In reality they should have won by 7 wickets atleast.

    You can speculate all you want about 100/50 extra runs on the board. But SA won the game comfortably. If they were chasing 250 then the game would have went to day 5 and SA still could have won with 6 wickets to spare. But thats all speculation.

  • Soso on February 19, 2013, 8:31 GMT

    Alot of comments here are utter rubbish. Especial for an article that clearly states that South Africa are not great yet.

    Australia was a great team for sure, but they are not as perfect as people make them out to be. If you take off your rose tinted glasses for a bit then you will realise they also had weaknesses. Their record in the subcontinent for a team that is considered to be perfect is indifferent. In fact SA have won more games there than Australia and have a better win/loss ratio.

    They also carried passengers at times go look at Hayden's record in South Africa and England you will notice he averages under 35 in each of these countries, while the "inconsistent" Smith averages 44 and 67 respectively.

    Australia were a great team yes, "perfect and invincible" NO!! Statements like SA are not anywhere near them are out of joint. They are not there yet, i agree with that, but given time we will see.

  • Nick on February 19, 2013, 7:34 GMT

    @ LillianThompson

    I do apologise, but I must say your view of the current South African side is narrower than ANYTHING you label as such. There is no space in the world for hindsight and "Ifs and Buts..."

    The fact remains that 8 weeks ago, Australia did NOT dismiss Faf du Plessis. And calling for his head after having a slightly off series (when his contributions were still substantial). I do agree that Elgar doesn't seem to be settling that easily, but again, rather early to be screaming for his head. As for the Petersons, I again hit the "DISAGREE" button. Alviro, in his last 7 tests, has 3 fifties (2 against Aus) and a 100 and has made himself near invaluable in the slips... I think the scary thing about the current Proteas side is that they are NUMBER 1 and LARGELY INEXPERIENCED... Imagine when they are all seasoned campaigners...?