The tributes were not all one way when Ricky Ponting played his farewell Test in Perth late last year. After Graeme Smith formed his South Africans into an honour guard to welcome the Australian champion to the crease one last time, Ponting's post-match remarks
included a sincere reciprocal compliment. Musing on the session after tea on the second day, when Smith and Hashim Amla put the Australian attack to the sword at eight runs an over, Ponting recognised a qualitative graduation in South African cricket.
"That was them trying to impose themselves on the series, and they did it better than I have seen any team take a game away from the opposition before," Ponting reflected. "A lot of the other teams we have played against over the years that have been in a position like that have been too scared to do that and push the game forward. What they did… was a sign that they had total belief in what they were doing." He was observing that the Proteas - ever competent but sometimes reticent - had moved their cricket to a new and intimidatory pitch of proficiency. From Ponting, this sounded especially resonant: his special subject here was not cricket but victory itself, about which the first Test cricketer to feature on a hundred winning sides might be expected to know more than a little.
The last few years have not been kind to dynastic thinking. Since Australia finally surrendered Test cricket's blue riband at The Oval in 2009, both India and England have been tried and found wanting, especially abroad, as world No. 1s. But in the rise of South Africa, are we now seeing the outline of a new global force to dominate all comers?
Their man-for-man strength is assuredly impressive. In "Notes to The Waste Land", TS Eliot enlarges on the lines in his poem referring to a mysterious extra presence in company ("another one walking beside you") by invoking an account of an Antarctic expedition where "it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted".
I'm reminded of the sentiment every time I scan a South African team sheet, when the 11 names seem somehow to encompass eight batsmen, six bowlers, until recently a couple of keepers, and four or five players who could be described as "leaders" in addition to the one, Smith, who officially leads.
In part, that's the Kallis effect at work: Smith has at his disposal a No. 4 batsman who can swing the old ball reverse at 140kph, and might at a pinch take the new ball as well. But there's more to it still. Ten batsmen in their squads of the last year have Test centuries to their credit (Smith, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy, Alviro Petersen, Jacques Rudolph, Dean Elgar and Ashwell Prince), and four others half-centuries (Dale Steyn, Robin Peterson, Vernon Philander, Albie Morkel). On the same lists, meanwhile, they have seven bowlers who have taken bags of five at Test level (Steyn, Peterson, Philander, Kallis, Morne Morkel, Marchant de Lange and newcomer Kyle Abbott). No international team matches them; no international team is even close. While the sempiternal Kallis is 37 years old and the openers each 32, the team's core members (Amla, Steyn, Morne Morkel, Philander, du Plessis, de Villiers, Duminy) all fall into that cricketing prime of the ages from 27 to 29. Growing up and maturing together lends itself to cohesiveness on the field and off.
Indeed, for all the individual brilliance the Proteas aggregate, it is their pride and purpose as a unit that most stands out clearly. Perhaps the most impressive dimension of their credentials as No. 1 is their record of having not lost a series on the road since 2006
. Both India's and England's leadership pretensions dissolved quickly, India's outside Asia, England's in Asia. South Africa, by contrast, travel as assuredly as Patrick Leigh Fermor. They have inflicted heavy defeats on India in Nagpur and Ahmedabad in the last five years. England and Australia, where they have won consecutive series, hold no terrors for them.
Many factors go to a team's effectiveness away from home: experience, versatility, preparation, leadership. The South Africans seem to harness all these to a high level of trust among their senior membership: Smith, Kallis, Amla, Steyn, de Villiers, their erstwhile team-mates turned coaches Gary Kirsten and Allan Donald, and not least their long-serving manager Mohammed Moosajee. Almost every Test team has been plagued by off-field incident, rumour and innuendo in the last year. But since Herschelle Gibbs turned T20 troubadour, South Africa's team has achieved an almost tedious collective equanimity.
The Proteas' status as Test cricket's No. 1 is the more remarkable because it has been achieved in spite of the dysfunctionality of the surrounding administration - a tribute to the cordon sanitaire round the team created by its backroom staff
Where are their limitations? There is the abiding one of slow bowling, Robin Peterson holding the fort since Imran Tahir was dashed against Adelaide Oval's truncated boundaries, but at 33 unlikely to be a long-term solution. Their outcricket can look a bit lacklustre too, with some slow movers and weak arms; and although they are blessed with probably the world's two best slip catchers in Smith (160 catches in 110 Tests) and Kallis (194 catches in 162 Tests), drafting AB de Villiers as a keeper has cost them their most explosive and ubiquitous fielder.
Perhaps their greatest challenge, however, is the flip side of the aforementioned record on the road. For whatever reason, South Africa have reserved their greatest disappointments for home audiences: their defeat by Australia in 2008-09
; their failures to do better than draw with England in 2009-10
and Australia in 2011-12
Then coach Mickey Arthur put the first of these down to the Proteas' brief brush with No. 1 status after defeating Australia in Perth and Melbourne in December 2008. "Agents, managers and promoters were all over us - including me!" he recalls in his autobiography. "Offers to speak at dinners, breakfasts and lunches came thick and fast, while endorsement deals with very attractive numbers but nonetheless problematic distraction… If you weren't doubling or tripling your salary, then you were wondering why not and looking at your team-mates who were. Envy? Suspicion? There were several new emotions and feelings within the squad. Administrators, too, were wondering what their cut was."
This last line proved especially prescient, for when IPL2 landed in South Africa's midst in April 2009 like a giant starship with a dollar-powered warp drive, the long-term impact was an administrative mayhem from which Cricket South Africa has still to recover. The Proteas' status as Test cricket's No. 1 is the more remarkable because it has been achieved in spite of the dysfunctionality of the surrounding administration - a tribute to the cordon sanitaire round the team created by its backroom staff. With its chequered and repressive history, South Africa is a tough country in which to get anything done: violent, corrupt, politicised, polarised. Perhaps, in a reversal of the norm, it is actually easier for Smith's team to play to its potential abroad: the distractions are fewer, the expectations neither so intense nor so direct. When South Africa started dominating Australia at Perth late last year, as Ponting observed, they looked like neither an away team nor even a home team; they looked like conquerors and occupiers.
It's just gone a decade since that ruinous, rain-soaked night at Kingsmead
when South Africa blew a chance to progress in the World Cup they were hosting, which spelt the end of Shaun Pollock's captaincy and the advent of Smith's. For Smith it may bode well that the next World Cup two years hence, which would perfectly climax his distinguished career, is in Australia.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer