Graeme, Fanie and then Dale
v England, Johannesburg, 1905-06
South Africa were outclassed in their early Tests - they lost their first eight, and 10 of their first 11 - but turned the tables in this, their 12th match. By the middle of the first decade of the 20th century they had assembled a good side, based around a troupe of legspinners who could exploit the new-fangled googly - and in this match at the Old Wanderers they took the lion's share of the England wickets. Six of them went to Aubrey Faulkner, who was also a superb batsman: in Australia in 1910-11 he would score 732 runs in the Tests. This was a reputable England side, captained by Plum Warner, although not quite a full-strength one. South Africa won the next two Tests as well, to clinch their first series victory.
v England, Lord's, 1935
South Africa won their first Test in England - at Lord's too - after 28 years of trying, thanks mainly to a solid innings from opener Bruce Mitchell, and nine wickets from Xenophon Balaskas, a legspinner of Greek extraction. In South Africa's first innings their wicketkeeper-batsman Jock Cameron hit 90, "the great innings of the day", according to Wisden, which added: "Pulling or using the pull-drive to hit three sixes and some of his six fours, he also showed brilliant execution of the cut and leg glance, and did not abate his attack on the bowling until steadying down, probably in the desire to complete a hundred in Test cricket, an ambition he was not destined to realise." The last part was necessary because, sadly, Cameron was dead within a year, after contracting enteric fever. The other four Tests were drawn, giving South Africa the series.
v Australia, Melbourne, 1952-53
South Africa's 1952-53 tour was nearly called off over fears that the Australians would brush them aside too easily, but an inspired team performance - especially fielding of a standard rarely seen before - meant that the tourists went into the final Test only 2-1 down. When the home side made 520 in their first innings the series seemed safe, but a consistent batting performance kept the lead down to 85. Then Australia subsided for a below-par total, leaving South Africa 295 to win. At 191 for 4 the match was in the balance, but the new batsman, 22-year-old Roy McLean, went past his captain, Jack Cheetham - next in, and looking nervous - and assured him there was nothing to worry about. McLean smacked 76 in 80 minutes, shared a century partnership with Headley Keith... and the series was shared without the need for Cheetham to bat again.
v England, Port Elizabeth, 1956-57
England and South Africa seem to specialise in seesaw series. After Peter May's side won the first two matches of this one, it looked as if the team (Jim Laker and all) who had just retained the Ashes at home would continue the good work here. But South Africa hit back, winning the fourth Test (offspinner Hugh Tayfield took 13 wickets), and then squared the series with another inspired performance, bowling England out for 130 when they needed only 189 to win. Tayfield claimed six more scalps in the collapse, taking his series tally to 37.
v England, Trent Bridge, 1965
This match is now remembered as the one in which Graeme Pollock, just 21, fully announced his greatness. On a tricky pitch, in conditions ideal for England's seamers, Pollock hit a commanding 125 as South Africa made 269 (no one else reached 40: the metronomic Tom Cartwright took 6 for 94). Wisden observed: "This was one of the finest Test displays of all time. In 70 minutes before lunch, Pollock felt his way tentatively while making 34. Afterwards he reigned supreme for 70 more minutes while he lashed the bowling for 91 out of 102. For the most part he made his strokes cleanly, and offered no chance until Cowdrey smartly held him at slip." Colin Cowdrey followed up with a fine century of his own, but later England never threatened a target of 319 as Graeme's brother Peter Pollock got in on the act with 5 for 34. The other two Tests in this first twin-tour summer were drawn, so South Africa took the series.
v Australia, Port Elizabeth, 1969-70
This was the culmination of arguably the perfect series for South Africa and their captain Ali Bacher: four Tests, four toss wins, four huge victories. This was the hugest of the lot - 323 runs - and was set up by a century from Barry Richards and a hostile spell from Mike Procter, with six wickets in Australia's second innings. Graeme Pollock wasn't really needed - he managed only 1 and 4, but had done his stuff earlier in the series with an innings of 274, a national record at the time. Bacher's strong all-round side seemed set to rule the world... but this was South Africa's last Test match for 22 years, as worldwide revulsion at their government's apartheid policies hit home.
v West Indies, Bridgetown, 1991-92
South Africa's first Test back after their readmittance to international cricket should have resulted in a stunning win over still-mighty West Indies. At the end of the fourth day they were 122 for 2, chasing 201 for a victory... but Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh had other ideas, and the last eight wickets tumbled for just 25 runs as panic set in. Still, the South Africans - who had exited the World Cup the previous month after a farcical semi-final against England - had showed they were a force to be reckoned with.
v Australia, Sydney, 1993-94
When Daryll Cullinan fell to his nemesis, Shane Warne, for the second time in the match, South Africa were 110 for 5 and still 13 short of avoiding an innings defeat. Jonty Rhodes somehow scraped a lead, and extended it to 116... but most onlookers still thought it was only a matter of time before the Aussies marched to yet another victory. And then Fanie de Villiers, an underrated fast bowler playing only his second Test, grabbed six wickets, Shane Warne was run out... and with seven still needed Damien Martyn holed out at cover. Australia were all out for 111 (the same score as at Headingley in 1981) and South Africa had won. Ali Bacher called it "our finest achievement ever" - and he had been captain in that 1969-70 whitewash. Australia (without Martyn, who did not play another Test for six years) hit back to draw the series with a win in Adelaide.
v Sri Lanka, Colombo, 2006
In the previous match, at the Sinhalese Sports Club, South Africa had sat helplessly through the Test-record partnership of 624 between Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, and ended up losing by an innings. Now, though, they exhibited the toughness for which they have become famous, coming within an ace of squaring the series: it was left to Lasith Malinga, Sri Lanka's No. 11, to squeeze out the winning run. Wisden called it "a classic, a compelling match that ebbed and flowed throughout, refusing to reveal the winner until the final stroke: a textbook on-drive from Sri Lanka's last man, followed by a frenetic scampered single".
v India, Ahmedabad, 2007-08
Some Tests matches are decided in the last hour, or on the last day. This one, though, was as good as over by lunch on the first: on a grassy pitch, and lacking Sachin Tendulkar, India were blown away for just 76. The chief destroyer was the tearaway Dale Steyn, who was on the way to establishing himself as one of the modern greats (his current Test strike rate has been surpassed by only three other bowlers, two of them from the 19th century). South Africa had fewer problems with the pitch: Jacques Kallis strolled to a century and AB de Villiers made his a double. India, supposedly invulnerable at home, had lost by the end of the third day, although they levelled the series on an underprepared pitch in the next match, in Kanpur.
v Australia, Melbourne, 2008-09
By Boxing Day 2008, South Africa had never won a Test series in Australia, having been trying for 70 years: they had won the first Test, but at 251 for 8 here in reply to 394, it looked as if the Aussies would soon be back on level terms. But JP Duminy, in only his second Test, combined in a rollicking stand of 180 with Dale Steyn, which turned the match around completely. South Africa somehow gained a lead of 65, bowled the stunned Australians out for 247 (Steyn again: 5 for 67) and knocked off their target of 183 for the loss of just one wicket. The Australian press took it as well as could be expected: the front page of Sydney's Daily Telegraph featured a gravestone carrying the epitaph "RIP Australian Cricket... slaughtered by South Africa... aided and abetted by incompetent selectors, inept batting, impotent bowling, dreadful catching and poor captaincy."
Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2011.