South Africa’s best ever cricket team?

5 January 2009

The South African cricket team has been receiving praise for its performances Down Under after winning the first two tests against Australia in style to ensure the Australians suffer their first series loss on home soil since the West Indies beat them in 1992/93.

Victory in the first test was achieved when the Proteas put together the second highest successful fourth innings run chase in test history. They made 414 for 6 and it looked as if 500 would not have been too difficult.

SA’s astonishing win and the calm and stylish manner in which it was achieved made the cricketing world sit up and take note of the seriousness of the challenge South Africa was posing to the world’s number one ranked test team.

Incredible turnaround

Then, in the second test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, it looked as if Australia had South Africa on the ropes after two days of play, with the Proteas on 198 for 7, replying to the hosts’ 394 all out.

The third day resulted in one of the most incredible turnarounds in test history as the Proteas took a first innings lead of 65 runs after JP Duminy’s memorable 166, and his ninth-wicket partnership of 180 with Dale Steyn, who contributed a career-best 76.

Graeme Smith and company went on to record a nine-wicket victory, leading some people, caught up in the euphoria of South Africa winning a series in Australia for the first time, to suggest that Smith’s team is the best South African team of all time.

While the side touring Down Under deserves praise, it is far too early to suggest it is South Africa’s best ever. The Proteas’ two victories speak volumes about the mental strength and talent of the team, as they had to come from behind to secure both wins, but that is also the argument against the side at this time; come-from-behind wins are not dominant victories, even if parts of SA’s wins were.

Tied for wins record

Make no mistake, Graeme Smith’s team is an outstanding outfit. Their 11 wins in 2008, tied for the most ever in a calendar year, is evidence of this. They have not yet been completely dominant throughout a series against a top team, however.

The dominance I speak about was exhibited by the last South African team to face Australia before SA was excluded from international cricket as part of sanctions against the apartheid policies of the country. That team, I would argue, was South Africa’s best Ever, but they were not given a long enough run to confirm their brilliance.

Their last series, however, against Australia in 1970, produced ample evidence that South Africa was at that time far and away the best side in the world.

Series win in India

Australia arrived in South Africa, fresh off a 3-1 series win over India in India. Given the Aussies’ struggles to win in India, even in recent years with their all-conquering teams, it was an excellent result for Bill Lawry’s men.

They arrived in South Africa as a highly regarded outfit. Ian Chappell was championed as the best batsman in the world; Johnny Gleeson, a finger spinner, was highly regarded, and Graham McKenzie was an experienced pace spearhead, having become the youngest bowler in test history to take 200 wickets.

Despite their undoubted pedigree, the Australians were outplayed, taken apart and beaten increasingly heavily as the four-test series progressed.

First test

In the first test in Cape Town, Eddie Barlow made 127 to help the Springboks to 382 all out in their first innings. Australia, in reply, managed only 164 as opening bowler Peter Pollock, the father of Shaun, knocked over 4 for 20.

South Africa made just 232 in their second innings, with Graeme Pollock, who made 49 in the first innings, top scoring with 50. Alan Connolly led the Aussie bowling attack, capturing 5 for 47.

While the Australians managed 280 in their second innings, they were well beaten by 170 runs. Bill Lawry made a fighting 83, but Mike Procter picked up 4 for 47 to undermine Australia’s efforts.

Second test

In Durban, in the second test, Ali Bacher’s team destroyed the Australians by an innings and 129 runs. Batting after winning the toss, South Africa posted an imposing 622 for 9 declared. Graeme Pollock, with an SA test record of 274, and Barry Richards, with 140, were the mainstays of the home team’s innings.

Their batting when at the crease together was brilliant and brutal; “Never have I seen the ball hit with such power by two players at the same time,” Australia’s captain Bill Lawry admitted.

Australia were skittled for just 157 in their first innings reply, as only four batsmen reached double figures. Eddie Barlow claimed 3 for 24 with the ball, while Pollock, Procter and Trevor Goddard all picked up two cheap wickets.

Forced to follow on, the Australians fared far better second time around as three batsmen – Keith Stackpole, Doug Walters, and Ian Redpath – made scores in the seventies. However, their 336 all out meant South Africa had scored an innings victory.

Third test

The series moved on to Johannesburg, where South Africa crushed the tourists by 307 runs in the third test.

SA led by 77 runs on the first innings after making 279 and then dismissing the Aussies for 202. Peter Pollock excelled with 5 for 39 in 23.2 overs.

In their second innings, South Africa tallied 408, with Eddie Barlow making 110, Graeme Pollock 87 and Lee Irvine 73. Australia weren’t up to the challenge, and fell for 178 in their second innings as Mike Procter picked up 3 for 24 and Trevor Goddard 3 for 27.

Fourth test

The series ended in Port Elizabeth, where South Africa won by an even bigger margin, of 323 runs.

A first innings opening partnership of 157 between Richards (81) and Barlow (73) helped South Africa to 311. Alan Connolly stood out for the Australians again, returning his best test figures of 6 for 47.

Australia replied with 212 all out as the opening bowlers, Pollock and Procter, took three wickets each.

South Africa then scored 470 for 7 declared in their second innings, with Richards making 126, Lee Irvine 102 and Ali Bacher 73. Based on the Australians’ previous batting performances in the series, they wouldn’t be able to meet the Springboks’ challenge.

They didn’t. Lawry and company were bowled out for 246 as Mike Procter proved the destroyer-in-chief, knocking over 6 for 73.

It was a series of complete dominance by South Africa. They had four batsmen score more than Australia’s highest run scorer, and those four also recorded higher averages. They also showed a sharper edge in the bowling department, with Procter capturing 26 wickets at a miserly 13.57 and Pollock picking up 15 at 17.20.

Rated best by Bradman

To put the talent and performances of some of the individuals in the South African team in context, Sir Donald Bradman, regarded by most as the greatest cricket player of all time, rated Graeme Pollock alongside Sir Garry Sobers as the best left-handed batsman he had ever seen. Bradman also chose Barry Richards to open the innings when he selected an all-time team.

When the International Cricket Council launches its Hall of Fame in 2009, only two South Africans will be among its members: Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards, both among the most dominant batsmen of their generation.

Mike Procter

A case for Mike Procter could be made for inclusion in the Hall. His test career was limited to seven matches because of South Africa’s banishment from the game, but his performances during his first-class career speak volumes of his ability as an all-rounder.

He scored 21 936 runs at an average of 36.01, highlighted by a world record-equalling six centuries in succession. He also took 1 417 wickets at an exceptional average of 19.53.

So important was he to his English county Gloucestershire that it was often referred to as “Proctershire” during his time there.

Eddie Barlow

Eddie Barlow was a tough-minded all-rounder, maybe not a great test player, but a very good one, no doubt. He played 30 tests, averaged 45.74 with the bat, and took 40 wickets at 34.05.

Trevor Goddard, too, was another all-rounder who performed well. Like Barlow, he made 2 516 test runs, with his average being 34.06. He also claimed 123 wickets at 26.22.

Peter Pollock captured 116 wickets in 28 tests at an average of 24.18 as a very effective opening bowler.

Most memorably, he and brother Graeme guided South Africa to a win over England in the second test at Nottingham in 1965, playing the dominant roles with ball and bat. Peter took 10 wickets in the match – 5 for 53 in the first innings and 5 for 34 in the second – while Graeme contributed 125 and 59 as most batsmen struggled in difficult conditions. SA won the series one-nil thanks to that win.

Denis Lindsay was an excellent wicketkeeper/batsman who, in a five-test series against Australia in 1966/67 topped the batting averages, scoring 606 runs at 86.57. Thanks to his crucial contributions, South Africa beat Australia in a series for the first time ever.

Dominance on the field

South Africa’s team of 1970 was filled with talent, some of it very special talent, among the best of all time, and the players transferred it to dominance on the field.

In retrospect, given the advantage of being able to examine those players’ complete careers, they were the best team that South Africa has ever produced.

The current side is clearly very good and, once their careers are over and can be examined completely, I might come to regard them as highly as the 1970 side.

First though, they will need to become as dominant as Ali Bacher’s great team.

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