As West Indies extended Christmas charity to their South African hosts on the opening day of the second Test in Port Elizabeth on Friday, Michael Holding made an undeniable observation on television commentary.

It was that the all-conquering teams of the 1980s would not have been quite so dominant had he and his proliferation of pace partners been repeatedly betrayed by their fielders as are the present, appreciably weaker, West Indies.

Almost invariably, when Holding and his accomplices found edges that flew into slips and gully, any combination of Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharran, Lawrence Rowe, Roger Harper, Richie Richardson and Gordon Greenidge were there to latch on to them; the two Murrays, Deryck and David, and Jeffrey Dujon gloved the thin snicks.

When bodyline deliveries were fended away, Desmond Haynes or Gus Logie was a few feet away at short leg to snaffle the catch. Their remarkable record of 15 years without a Test series loss would still have stood, Holding noted, for their batting was as powerful as their bowling; it was just that, without their dazzling fielding, victories would have been harder to come by; some might even have been draws.

That was when West Indies ruled the roost; a quarter-century on, they have long since been knocked off their perch. The South Africans are now No. 1, they are No. 8. The gap is all the wider when three of their bowlers (Shannon Gabriel, Jason Holder and Sheldon Cottrell) have played a combined 14 Tests, with a fourth (Kenroy Peters) on debut, and more when chances offered by the run-hungry South African batsman are repeatedly spurned.

Contemporary West Indian cricketers tend not to be overly interested in history and the lessons to be learned from it. It would be instructive for them to borrow a copy of Wisden and read the account of South Africa's 1952-53 tour of Australia

In their first Test defeat in Centurion, they allowed Stiaan van Zyl to escape before he was in double figures, to a sharp short-leg catch to Kraigg Brathwaite off Sulieman Benn; he proceeded to mark his Test debut with an unbeaten 101.

Hashim Amla would have been short of his eventual double-hundred had Jermaine Blackwood hung on to a leaping, two-handed effort at midwicket off Jerome Taylor, or Cottrell and Benn between them not muffed a clear-cut run-out.

It got worse at St George's Park on Friday. Faf du Plessis was let off on 8 by Marlon Samuels, two-handed to his left in the gully off Taylor, and at 26 by the flying Devon Smith from an edged drive off Benn. Benn's following delivery had left Dean Elgar, then on 48, stranded down the pitch, but Denesh Ramdin muffed the stumping.

At 73, Elgar got away with a suicidal single when Peters' throw from midwicket missed the bowler's stumps by inches. When Elgar became Peters' first Test wicket in the final session, Amla replaced him. He was on 5 and a long way down the pitch, backing up, Holder's throw from a sitting position at mid-on was as close as Peters' - but not close enough.

Nor are these aberrations. In their preceding Test series, against Bangladesh in St Vincent, they contrived to drop five catches. None was difficult, a couple embarrassingly simple. As they still completed victory by ten wickets, it didn't matter against an opponent ranked one place below them. It matters when it's South Africa and not Bangladesh.

There are a host of reasons for the present pathetic standard of West Indies' batting and bowling; inferior pitches, unreliable umpiring, weak domestic teams are among them. There can be no excuses for shoddy fielding.

There are countless examples of those lacking the agility, the reflexes and the sheer natural talent of, say, Garry Sobers, Richards or Jonty Rhodes transformed by the simple device of concentrated practice.

Contemporary West Indian cricketers tend not to be overly interested in history and the lessons to be learned from it. It would be instructive for those in South Africa and those in charge of them to borrow a copy of Wisden and read the account of South Africa's 1952-53 tour of Australia.

It is worth quoting. "Rarely in international cricket has a team so thoroughly routed the prophets as did the young and markedly inexperienced side," it reported. "Many, acknowledged as sound and dispassionate judges, had suggested the tour should be cancelled rather than allow South Africa's cricket, admittedly at a low ebb, to suffer a sequence of seemingly inevitable crushing defeats which could cause long-standing damage," was a sentence that should resonate with them.

As it turned out, South Africa shared that series 2-2 . Wisden credited fielding as a principal reason for the performance.

"On arrival in Australia, (captain Jack) Cheetham told friends he might not be leading a strong batting or bowling team but he was resolved they should excel in the field," it stated. "At times in the opening fortnight at Perth, the South Africans devoted three to four hours to fielding alone and, to the end of the tour, they practiced fielding as assiduously as batting and bowling.

"Before many matches had been played, spectators went just as much to see the fielding of these fit young men as to watch them bat and bowl," was an account Holding himself could relate to. It was the same when his West Indies were at the peak of their popularity in Australia.

It was not that they required extra fielding practice to compensate for deficiencies in their potent batting and bowling. It was simply that they recognised fielding as essential as the other elements.

Australia captain Ian Chappell's explanation for West Indies' close, pulsating victory in the 1975 World Cup final emphasises the point.

"The main difference between the teams was the fielding. Their fielding was tremendous and Richards was like a panther," he said. Certainly Richards running out three of the top four in the Australian order - Alan Turner and Ian and his brother Greg - was as influential in the result as Lloyd's Man-of-the-Match 85-ball 102.

The inequalities between the 2014 West Indies and South Africa are obvious and equally divided among batting, bowling and fielding. For future reference, Cheetham's mantra before South Africa's 1952-53 tour of Australia is pertinent:

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for 50 years