Even as their standing in the limited-overs scene has often been characterized by their inability to handle big moments, South Africa are usually known to thrive under pressure in Tests. In recent times, they have established a reputation of being competitive travellers when almost every other team are known otherwise. Historically, their win-loss ratio of 1.136 is only bettered by Australia and England.
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While their most productive phase spanned from the late 2000s till the early 2010s, South Africa have always been a strong unit since their readmission into international cricket in 1992. Before the Apartheid Era robbed the sport of one of its powerhouses, the Proteas produced several iconic cricketers. Here is an all time Test XI containing the very best players from their illustrious history. Due to lack of adequate sample size (for no fault of theirs), legends such as Barry Richards and Mike Procter are not factored into account.
(*Note: Statistics for all active players are accurate as of 5th February, 2018)
Armed with nothing but unmatched mental toughness, Graeme Smith set the foundation for South Africa's golden era. The tenacious left-hander scored 9265 runs from 117 Tests at an average of 48.25 with 27 centuries and 38 fifties. Thrust into the captaincy throne at the age of 22, Smith's unrelenting determination rubbed off on his team mates and earned him enormous respect from the cricketing fraternity.
With plenty of world-class fast bowlers operating at the height of their powers, the 1990s was a particularly difficult era for opening batsmen. Gary Kirsten was one of the few openers who managed to emerge from the decade with his credentials enhanced. The remorseless accumulator of runs blunted the new ball in his own unassuming manner. 7289 runs from 101 Tests at an average of 45.27 with 21 tons and 34 fifties stand as testament to his pure grit.
Hashim Amla occupies the crucial number three slot in this star-studded batting lineup. At that particular batting position, only three batsmen have scored more runs than the technically accomplished right-hander. Thus far, he has played 113 Tests and scored 8786 runs at an average of 49.08 with 28 centuries and 38 fifties. Beyond numbers, his penchant for playing substantial knocks across a wide variety of pitches has been helping him serve South African cricket quite profitably.
Graeme Pollock was one of the most gifted cricketers who were denied their rightful places in the annals of greatness due to the ramifications of the infamous Apartheid Era. Before he lost his Test career to situations beyond his control, the left-hander registered 2256 runs at an impressive average of 60.97 with seven centuries and eleven fifties.
With his impregnable technique and unflappable temperament, Jacques Kallis was the bulwark of South Africa's batting lineup for the vast majority of his glorious career. In the all time batting charts, only Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting are perched above him. Apart from amassing a mammoth 13289 runs from 166 Tests at a remarkable average of 55.37 with 45 centuries, the legendary all-rounder also picked 292 wickets and pouched 200 catches.
#3 Wicket-keeper and All-rounders
Even though there cannot be a better choice than Mark Boucher for the specialist wicket-keeper slot, imparting the big gloves to AB de Villiers converts an already formidable batting lineup into an impenetrable one. He has kept wickets in 24 Tests and effected 94 dismissals (89 catches and 5 stumpings). Thus far, the attacking right-hander has played 110 matches and scored 8338 runs at an average of 49.92 with 21 centuries and 42 fifties.
One of South Africa's valuable cricketers during their early years in the Test arena, Aubrey Faulkner added enormous credibility to the team's fortunes at a time when victories were few and far in between. Aside from scoring 1754 runs from 25 matches at an average of 40.79 with four centuries, the all-rounder also picked 82 wickets with his leg-spin.
Changing the common perception that fast bowlers had to be nasty to get into the groove, the affable Shaun Pollock preferred to let his work do the talking. With 421 scalps from 108 matches at an average of 23.11, he is the leading wicket-taker in South Africa's Test history. In addition to his probing seam bowling, the right-hander also manned the lower-order with commendable resourcefulness. 3781 runs at an average of 32.31 with two centuries stand as testament to his all-round skills.
While he may still be two wickets short of drawing level with Pollock's all time tally, Dale Steyn has already established himself as South Africa's greatest ever bowler. Very few fast bowlers in Test cricket have produced as many game-changing spells as the man from Phalaborwa. Among all bowlers with 200 or more wickets, his strike-rate of 41.5 is the best in the business. It remains to be seen if he can expand his collection of 419 scalps in the coming months.
The specialist spinner spot is probably the easiest of picks in this eminent lineup. With his stellar record and luminous reputation among the connoisseurs, Hugh Tayfield takes up the role of premier spinner in South Africa's dream Test team. In a career spanning from 1949 to 1960, the off-spinner played 37 matches and picked 170 wickets at an average of 25.91 with 14 five-wicket hauls.
Fast and ferocious in equal measure, Allan Donald terrorised countless batsmen right throughout the extremely competitive 1990s. His hostile pace often took the docility of tracks out of the equation. From 72 Tests, he gathered 330 wickets at a sterling average of 22.25 and lethal strike-rate of 47 with as many as 20 five-wicket hauls.
#1 12th man and Full squad
Having picked two spin options in the playing eleven, the 12th man spot should go to a potent fast bowler who can bolster the pace department on seam-friendly pitches. With 390 wickets from 101 Tests, Makhaya Ntini is the third most prolific bowler in South Africa's Test history. Apart from his propensity to generate sharp pace, he can also induce energy into the side through his cheerful demeanour.
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In case de Villiers remains reluctant to don the wicket-keeping gloves, Mark Boucher can slot into the playing eleven. His collection of 555 dismissals are comfortably the highest in Test cricket. While the tenacious Bruce Mitchell lends cover to the opening department, the revered Dudley Nourse offers a back-up middle-order option. Factoring his ability to wreak havoc on favourable conditions, Vernon Philander completes a robust 16-member squad.
South Africa's All-Time Test XI
Graeme Smith (c), Gary Kirsten, Hashim Amla, Graeme Pollock, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers (wk), Aubrey Faulkner, Shaun Pollock, Dale Steyn, Hugh Tayfield and Allan Donald
Also in the 16-man Squad
Makhaya Ntini (12th man), Bruce Mitchell, Dudley Nourse, Mark Boucher (wk) and Vernon Philander