South Africa January 6, 2009

Looking out for No. 1

Series wins in England and Australia - could 2008 have been any better for South Africa?

Dale Steyn was South Africa's main weapon, and the world's leading Test wicket-taker in 2008 © PA Photos

Mickey Arthur and Graeme Smith could hardly have dared to dream of the triumphs they would achieve after proclaiming, following a disappointing end to their 2007 World Cup campaign, that the focus for the next two years would be on Test cricket.

The Proteas have achieved an unprecedented run of success, culminating in a first series win by any South African team in Australia. That victory was South Africa's ninth win in ten series going back to the 2006-07 season.

The ledger for 2008 shows 11 wins, two draws and two defeats in 15 Test matches, spread over six series, of which five were won and one shared.

South Africa's one-day performances were less impressive than might be suggested by a superficial glance at a record of 12 wins, four defeats and one no-result. Seven wins were achieved against the negligible opposition of Bangladesh and Kenya and five against West Indies. In their most challenging series, South Africa were beaten 4-0 by England, with a fifth match washed out. The one-day side was hit by the retirement of Shaun Pollock, the loss of "death" bowler Charl Langeveldt to a Kolpak contract in England, and a sudden dearth of hard-hitting bowling allrounders.

With two years before the next World Cup, Arthur and Smith will devote energy to building a one-day unit to match the success of the Test side. The selection of untried youngsters such as Wayne Parnell, Vaughn van Jaarsveld and Lonwabo Tsotsobe for the forthcoming one-day series in Australia is part of that process.

It was South Africa's Test cricket, however, that commanded attention in 2008, as they disposed of West Indies at home and Bangladesh away before beating India by an innings in Ahmedabad. Leading 1-0 in the series they were caught on a disgracefully under-prepared pitch in Kanpur as India earned a share of the spoils. The first series win in England since unity - and only the third of all time - was a highlight, but nothing surpassed their victory in Australia.

All the essentials of a winning team were in place, with the possible exception of excellence in spin bowling. A settled top six played in every match, with the exception of the injury-enforced absences for one match of Neil McKenzie and two by Ashwell Prince. When Prince was put out of action before the first Test in Australia, the prodigious talent of Jean-Paul Duminy was revealed on the Test stage. After making an unbeaten half-century in the thrilling pursuit of 414 in the final innings in Perth, Duminy turned the second Test, in Melbourne, on its head with a magnificent 166.

Duminy had been on no fewer than four Test tours before he finally made his debut - a situation he accepted with the calm pragmatism that he showed when his opportunity finally arose. Now Prince, who scored 900 runs at 64.28 during the year, may find himself the man waiting for an opening.

Prince was just one of five of the regular top six who averaged above 50 for the year. Remarkably, the odd man out was Jacques Kallis, who nevertheless played a prominent role with bat, ball and his safe hands in the slips during the first two Tests in Australia.

While runs on the board are a crucial foundation for winning cricket, the ability to take 20 wickets was the clincher during the year. Dale Steyn led a potent if not wholly consistent fast bowling attack. The 2008 ICC Test Cricketer of the Year finished the year with 74 wickets in 13 matches at 20.01. When Steyn was good he was excellent, bowling at high pace and getting late away-swing.

Rather like Allan Donald before him, Steyn is a bowler who needs a match or two to find his rhythm, and he was not at his best early in the series in England and Australia. Any suggestions that he owed his impressive record to a preponderance of matches against weak opponents - notwithstanding five-wicket hauls in both Pakistan and India - were blown away, however, by a sensational ten-wicket haul in Melbourne.

After a decade of lung-bursting effort, Makhaya Ntini, at 31, showed signs of losing his sting, but a break after the England tour and a spell in domestic cricket seemed to be the tonic he needed. He finished the year with 54 wickets at 28.46.

The tall Morne Morkel was seen as South Africa's next great match-winning bowler. He produced some unplayable deliveries and took 43 wickets, but his best days lie ahead.

Kallis and Paul Harris provided competent support to the main strike bowlers.

South Africa's catching throughout the year was excellent, particularly in the all-important cordon, where wicketkeeper Mark Boucher and Smith, Kallis and AB de Villiers in the slips held almost every offering that came their way.

Graeme Smith led from the front, dodgy elbow and all © Getty Images

The ultimate hero was the captain. Smith was an impressively mature leader and led by example with the bat. He scored six of South Africa's 23 centuries, including a monumental unbeaten 154 not out in the decisive run chase against England at Edgbaston, a century that set up the record pursuit in Perth, and 75 in the final innings in Melbourne.

What was most remarkable about Smith's 1656 runs at 72.00 was that for almost half the year he battled against the pain of a chronic tennis elbow injury. Not for the first time, he refused to allow extreme physical discomfort to deter him from contributing to his team's cause.

New kid on the block
Duminy looked a player of genuine quality when he played two key innings against Australia in his first two Tests.

Fading star
After eight years of harrumphing and hassling opponents with his muscular fast bowling, the international career of Andre Nel seemed to have run its course.

High point
Edgbaston? Perth? Melbourne? The most dramatic of three successful run-chases was Edgbaston, the most remarkable Perth, and the most significant Melbourne.

Low point
An anti-climactic final-Test loss in England was followed by four limp performances in the one-day series.

What 2009 holds
A return series against Australia and a home series against England will provide further Test challenges while South Africa will seek improved performances in one-day internationals and the World Twenty20 in England.

Colin Bryden is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times, South Africa, and editor of the Mutual & Federal South African Cricket Annual