It’s easy to get to the top, tougher to stay there. Over the past year both India and England have realized the truism behind this well-known sporting adage. India were perched on top of the ICC Test rankings for just over a year and a half, England who dethroned them were No 1 for around a year. The days of one team dominating the sport are over.
The West Indies called the shots from 1980 to 1995 not losing even a single series over that period. Australia who replaced them were on top for just over a decade. But ever since they have fallen from the pedestal it is clear that that about half a dozen teams have a realistic chance to go to the top. And South Africa who have threatened to take over the exalted status for some time now have finally achieved the objective.
To many dispassionate observers of the game, it is a mystery why they did not reach the position earlier. With the kind of team they have had over the years, it is a wonder that they took so long to ascend the throne. Even as Australia faltered it seemed that South Africa and not India would succeed them as top dogs. But perhaps they have only themselves to blame.
After notching up a historic triumph in the Test series in Australia in 2008-09, all South Africa had to do was to repeat the feat in their own backyard a few months later. That would have given them the No 1 spot. Instead they faltered very much in keeping with the choker’s tag which has perennially followed them since their re-admission 20 years ago, lost the series 2-1 and missed the chance to go to the top.
The choker’s charge has been more serious when it comes to limited overs cricket which is why South Africa have never won a major international competition barring the inaugural Champions Trophy in Bangladesh in 1998 but it seemed that they carried over the tag to Test cricket also.
That is why there were serious doubts whether they could win the series in England which they needed to do to become No 1. However for once they did not falter and performed like the champion side they appeared to be for long.
If the West Indies and Australia dominated for a quarter of a century it was because they had great teams – world class batsmen, a formidable array of fast bowlers, an all time great spinner in Shane Warne and outstanding leaders.
One look at the present South African squad and it compares favourably with the Windies and Aussie teams led by Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh. It is another matter that their reign at the top may not last as long because as I said there are a few other teams who are also strong enough to hold their own whereas in the past the West Indies and Australian teams were overwhelmingly superior.
This is not the first occasion that South Africa have been the best team in the world though this time there is an official tag about it. When they routed Australia in two successive rubbers in 1966-67 and three years later they were a formidable unit.
Unfortunately the 4-0 demolition of Australia in early 1970 proved to be the last contest before their excommunication but with a team boasting the likes of Trevor Goddard, Peter Pollock, Graeme Pollock, Mike Procter, Eddie Barlow and Barry Richards and led by that shrewd general Ali Bacher the manner in which they steamrolled Australia did not really come as a surprise.
It would be fanciful to speculate what would be the outcome of a contest between Bacher’s squad and Graeme Smith’s team. But it would be a sight for the gods and I dare say that Smith’s side could hold their own. The way they defeated England (the No 1 team no less) underscored their all round skills and full credit to South Africa for winning the series emphatically without the services of their all time great stumper Mark Boucher.
They were well served in all departments. The line-up of Graeme Smith, Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Jacques Rudolph and JP Duminy was one that gave even the strong English attack headaches symbolized by the 637 for two compiled at the Oval.
Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel underscored the fact that they were the best pace attack in the contemporary game while it was always on the cards that Imran Tahir would have his moments against opponents who are traditionally susceptible to playing leg spin bowling. De Villiers doubled up admirably for Boucher behind the stumps and the fact that they played the same eleven in all three matches made the South Africans look like a settled, well oiled machine.
All this augurs well for the South Africans in the future. They have a vastly experienced leader in Smith and the nucleus of an all time great team. Despite the intense competition these days I can see their reign lasting longer than India’s or England’s. After all they do have the man with the magic touch in Gary Kirsten!