Not long after Ali Bacher and David Williams completed their first collaboration, a book on South Africa's greatest allrounders, Williams asked Bacher if they should consider doing one on South Africa's best batsmen. Bacher was not convinced, but the next day, he called Williams and said if they were to embark on a second project, he had the beginnings of a list of batsmen they could look at.
So began the pair's second innings, which is formatted in the same way as the first to maintain consistency, but delves a little deeper into the art of batting. As someone with experience in the field himself, Bacher was the chief selector and, aided by some rigorous criteria, was tasked with choosing 12 outstanding international batsmen for the book.
Bacher and Williams established that as of December 2014, only 39 batsmen worldwide had achieved a Test average regarded as "excellent" - of over 50 - and only six were South African. Five of them - Dudley Nourse, Graeme Pollock, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla, were automatic picks. Faf du Plessis was omitted because of the infancy of his Test career. The rest of the book is made up of players with a Test average of either "very good" (45-50) or "good" (40-45), along with two players from South Africa's non-white teams who were denied the opportunity to play at the highest level during apartheid, but there are some obvious absentees. Jimmy Cook (who played three Tests but had a first-class average of 50.58), Peter Kirsten (Test average 31.30, first-class average 44.46) and Daryll Cullinan (Test average 44.21, first-class average 44.79) are among those who didn't make the cut.
The inclusions come with interesting statistics, none more so than the staggering one about the two current players written about - de Villiers and Amla. The pair are the only players in the history of the game with Test and ODI averages over 50. Bacher lauds de Villiers' creativity and calls Amla a "living bridge between apartheid and the country's democracy".
Either side of that bridge, things got interesting. The pre-war stories of Nourse, Bruce Mitchell and Eric Rowan are underlined by the 1939 timeless Test while Herbie Taylor's battle with Sydney Barnes is recreated in some detail. Those early years were characterised by the "intensity of defence rather than aggression", so the closer to the contemporary period we get, the more things change even though the book itself does not. It relies heavily on statistics and match reportage to make its case throughout.
Pollock, Barry Richards and Colin Bland, whose chapter begins with a celebration of his fielding, are lauded for individual greatness but there are no great mysteries revealed about them. Instead, the unknown comes from the contribution of historian Krish Reddy, who writes on Ahmed Deedat and Frank Roro, known as Dusty Bradman, the two players of colour featured in the compilation. Unlike in the allrounders book, more space has been made to look into what might have been before going on to the current crop.
Gary Kirsten, as the first South African to play 100 Tests, the first to score a double-hundred since readmission and the first to score two hundreds in the same game, could not be ignored, and neither could Graeme Smith. His captaincy takes a backseat to his ability to score quickly and under pressure. Someone with a similar determination is Kevin Pietersen, a surprising inclusion, which Bacher saw as necessary even though he was at the heart of Pietersen leaving South Africa.
"KP went to Maritzburg College and played Natal B so he is a South African product," Bacher said at the book launch. Pietersen felt he was an unwanted product when, in 2000, he went to see Bacher to inform him of his decision to leave based on the quota system. Bacher recounts part of that meeting in the book and explains how his relationship with Pietersen has since thawed. The exploration of Pietersen's supreme self-confidence juxtaposed against his child-like vulnerability is the most compelling personal account in the book.
In complete contrast is Jacques Kallis, who maintains the same distance he was known for as a player, and is the only player to have appeared in both books. All that's left to ask is whether Bacher and Williams are planning a third book, about South Africa's best bowlers. "Right now, Ali is not convinced," Williams joked. "But I know he has already started thinking of the list."
South Africa's Greatest Batsmen: Past and Present
by Ali Bacher and David Williams
Penguin Random House 2015
241 pages, R150