16 January 2013
The South African cricket team’s 2-0 series victory over New Zealand was not unexpected. However, following stiff challenges from England and Australia, it was encouraging, from a South African point of view, that the Proteas did not play down to the level of their opposition.
It is a problem that some leading teams experience in various sports, but the ruthlessness that has become evident in the Proteas’ line-up over the past year, the ability to jump on an opponent when that opponent is down, as evidenced in the England and Australian series, was again evident in the series victory over the Black Caps.
The last cricket team that showed off this ability regularly was the great Australian team captained by Steve Waugh that included stars such as Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist. The current South African team has a long way to go to match that side, but there are plenty of parallels.
Firstly, there is the battle-hardened captain: Graeme Smith, now the most capped test captain of all time, has become a more adventurous leader under coach Gary Kirsten. His decisions are more aggressive, his batting strong, especially when his side needs him to perform, and he is highly respected by the players he leads and the opposition the Proteas face. Much like Steve Waugh.
Then there are the bowling kingpins. For Australia, Warne and McGrath led the way. For South Africa, it’s a three-way thing, with Dale Steyn the main man, very strongly supported by Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel. They form a three-headed monster, each bringing something different to the game that compliments the other.
They’re ranked first, second and eight respectively in the test bowling rankings, with Steyn, who passed 300 test wickets in the New Zealand series, having held that position since August 2009.
During the recent second test win over New Zealand in Port Elizabeth, former Proteas’ captain Kepler Wessels said great teams have great opening batsmen. He cited examples that include Hayden and Langer and Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes for the West Indies. While Smith has been consistent at the top of the South African order, Alviro Petersen has just started coming into his own.
However, South Africa has the best top six in test cricket and it is seldom that the batting fails. Four of the top 12 batsmen in the test rankings are South Africans. Hashim Amla, in second place is only one point behind Australia captain Michael Clarke, while AB de Villiers is in sixth place, Jacques Kallis in seventh and Smith in 12th.
Amla has become the team’s leading batsman, but any one of those players is capable of dominating the bowling. Kallis, at the age of 37, remains a marvellous player and provides an all-round advantage that no other team can match.
Smith, Petersen, Amla, Kallis, De Villiers, Du Plessis … Langer, Hayden, Ponting, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist …
Depth, too, has become a strength of the team. When JP Duminy was injured in Australia, Faf du Plessis stepped into his shoes and immediately captured the man of the match award in the second test with innings of 78 and 110 not out that ultimately set South Africa up for a crushing 309-run victory in the third test. After four tests, he averages 111.25 with two centuries and two fifties in six innings.
Dean Elgar began his test career with a pair in his first test, the 309-run victory over the Aussies in Perth, but in Port Elizabeth he notched his first test ton, 103 not out, in his third test.
When Vernon Philander was sidelined by injury for the second test, Rory Kleinveldt, who also played Down Under, stepped up and did a fine job, capturing 2 for 53 and 2 for 44 and probably deserved better than that.
When Imran Tahir lost form badly in Australia, left-arm spinner Robin Peterson took over and played a big role in South Africa’s series-clinching win. He continued his fine form against New Zealand.
Coaching-wise, it seems that everything Gary Kirsten touches turns to gold. His primary strength appears to be man management and getting the best out his players. That’s an invaluable asset.
Make no mistake Pakistan, who begin a tour of South Africa on 25 January, will be a far tougher nut to crack. They’re ranked fourth in the ICC test rankings. Yet, if the parallels drawn earlier are to be believed, the Proteas should have their measure.
These are good times for South African cricket. That confident feeling that their team is number one is a little foreign, but extremely exciting, for Proteas fans.
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