Even the few sceptics who might have yet questioned the legitimacy of South Africa’s status as the No 1 ranked Test team in the game would have convinced by the manner in which they demolished Pakistan in under 3-1/2 days in the first Test at Johannesburg. Indeed it could well have been a victory by an innings and in two days had Graeme Smith enforced the follow on after Pakistan were shot out for 49 in their first innings immediately after lunch on the second day.
Even granting that the follow on is not exactly the fad these days with captains both in Tests and in the first class game, Smith’s decision was baffling. The sporting adage is that when you have an opponent pinned down ram home the advantage, don’t give him even the smallest avenue to rise again and finish him off in double quick time.
In this case the Pakistan batsmen were clearly shell shocked at the devastation that Dale Steyn, supported by Vernon Philander and Jacques Kallis had caused and were in no condition to fight back. It was not even that the bowlers were tired for four of them had shared just 29 overs between them.
Smith, otherwise an astute and experienced captain, did not quite get it right on this occasion though of course the decision to bat again could never really jeopardize the chances of victory, so far ahead were South Africa at this stage.
Pakistan are by tradition a mercurial lot but given the quality of their batting and pace and spin bowling they were certainly not rated as no-hopers on the eve of the Test. However so outplayed were they in all departments of the game that in four sessions the result of the match became a foregone conclusion. More than any shoddy show from Pakistan, it was South Africa’s commanding display that saw them wrap up the game by 211 runs after losing only 13 wickets themselves.
South Africa are really an exceptional team, fully deserving of the exalted status they enjoy. This is confirmed by the latest ICC rankings which has a host of South African players dominating the batting, bowling and all rounder standings. They have the best batting line-up in the contemporary game what with two of the top six averaging virtually 50, two more averaging over 50 and one with a freak average of 97 after playing five Tests.
They also have without an iota of doubt the best pace attack in the world. Steyn is inarguably the best in the business and Morne Morkel and Philander are not far behind. In addition the opposition has to counter Kallis’ seam and swing bowling and as he proved yet again at Johannesburg he can be more than a handful.
To complete the happy picture they are the best fielding side around. About the only weakness is the lack of a quality spin bowler but as in the case of the great West Indian squads of the 80s, it really does not matter with the top class pace attack they have.
So outstanding is the balance in the side that South Africa have even made light of the sudden and unexpected loss of Mark Boucher. The career of the long serving keeper-batsman and world record holder was ended in rather freakishly tragic circumstances last year but AB de Villiers has since doubled up as a batsman-keeper and so admirably has he performed that even the great Boucher’s absence has hardly been felt.
His duties behind the stumps has not affected the quality of his batting and this was driven home by an epoch making performance at Johannesburg when he became the first player in history to score a century and make 11 dismissals – the latter equalling the world record of Jack Russell.
The manner in which South Africa are outplaying opponents – both at home and away – they could well run up a record that could challenge the two best teams in history – the West Indians of the 80s under Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards and the Australians of the 90s and the first few years of the new millennium under Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh.
At the time when they were excommunicated from international cricket in the early 70s, South Africa were ironically the best team in the world having successively defeated England and Australia (twice). Forty years later they are deservedly on the pinnacle.
The side contains two all time greats in Kallis, the greatest all rounder after Gary Sobers, and Steyn, the most complete fast bowler since Glenn McGrath. Smith and Amla are true greats while de Villiers and Morkel are almost there. And the manner in which Philander and Faf du Plessis have started their careers augurs well for them and South African cricket.
South Africa’s bold and far sighted approach has yielded dividends. The latest example is their handling of Dean Elgar. The 25-year-old left hander got a pair on debut against Australia at Perth late last year. But the selectors, recognizing talent, persevered with him and the result was that Elgar got a hundred in his third Test and is now an integral part of the famous middle order. Du Plessis of course has been an unexpected bonus ever since he started off with a match saving century on debut against Australia late last year.
So exceptional is the all round quality of the South African side that it is difficult to answer the question which is stronger – their batting or their bowling. And when it comes to this sort of debate, it is clear that we are talking about a great side with the potential to become one of the greatest ever in the game’s history.