Proteas - The alternative conquerors

Australia, in the contest between two heavyweights, eager to utilise their superior position in the Test to mark a commendable victory, fell exhausted at their failure to grasp a result on the final day, in Adelaide two years ago. Debutant Faf du Plessis had batted all day to score a match-saving ton, and it proved decisive as his team dominated the final Test in Perth to defeat their formidable opponents at home. When the teams were in a similar position in Cape Town earlier this year, Australia had the little bit extra, via their fast bowler Ryan Harris, to finish the resistance and take the series win.

South Africa dominated world cricket in the last decade

If these were iconic images of South Africa, the first one symbolic of their maturity as a unit to find the much-needed killer instinct to remove slack, and the other a signal of the end of an era, there was much else they did in the last decade that deserves attention.

There is one unanimous adjective for the gifted South African team in the last decade of international cricket – respectable. Yet they dominated. They liked to defeat their opponents via a style of play that was typical of a slow but steadily rising heat, as against the penchant for being dramatic, as Australia were. It isn’t preposterous to conclude that they had the ability to outperform all else, and the lack of one or two key ingredients kept their portrayal from being described by a more admiring word.

In the earlier half of last decade, they were by far the second-best team after Australia, whose dominance then was legendary and worth of note, as they kept repeating their phases of success as a rule. South Africa were finding their feet after Graeme Smith, then 22, was announced as their new captain in the then two formats. By chasing down 434 in a one-dayer in Johannesburg three years later, they managed to justify their possession of quality.

They did not have a confidence in themselves, it seemed, and somewhere it stemmed from an apparent lack of ambition. Such as, their annihilation by Australia in the Test series that followed that bizarre Johannesburg game.

It was seen in other ways, too, like batsman JP Duminy, who displayed his talents in Australia, scoring a century and a half, to contribute to a memorable series win in 2008, but instead of using the confidence as a fuel to flourish his international career, floundered. He was still ‘fighting to keep his spot’ before he scored a match-winning 123 in Port Elizabeth in February this year, also against Australia. It’s not just his ability to hit centuries against decent bowling attacks, but his eye-catching shot-making and a good technique that seems to contradict his batting average of 34.71.

Yet, his inability to cement his place in his side for granted was a measure of the quality of his team. Smith, allrounder Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, wicketkeeper Mark Boucher, and later fast bowler Dale Steyn, were their pillars. The strength of these players ensured the team had direction and motivation, and when the unstable period had subsided, they enforced their style of play to embark upon their most successful era in international cricket.

If Smith gave them a powerful leadership, Kallis gave a lifelong solidity to their batting besides lifting the bowling attack through his quality as an alternative seamer. Boucher contributed by his world-class efficiency behind the stumps and his obdurate batting in times of need. De Villiers and Steyn are both ranked No. 1 in Test and ODI rankings for batsmen and bowlers respectively, having taken their team to perform at unsurpassable levels in Tests in the recent years. Add to this, the quality of Hashim Amla’s batting, and the pace and accuracy of Morne Morkel, and one has a team of world beaters – they lost only one Test series in the last eight years, before Australia conquered them in the Cape Town thriller.

Overseas supremacy

That they were sensitive to work towards completeness as a unit was seen in their ability to conquer the best teams away from home. The seeds were sown when they almost secured a series win against India, then the No. 1 Test side, in early 2010, thwarted only by Harbhajan Singh, who broke their final-wicket resistance at Eden Gardens for a drawn series. They fulfilled their objective, as three years later, they defeated New Zealand, England and Australia away from home without losing a single match. Between August, 2011 and May, 2013, they played nine overseas Tests, winning four, and losing nil.

On their gained expertise at conquering all conditions, Smith said, “I don’t think many teams in the current setup can travel as well as we do and be able to perform in the different environments and under the different pressures. I don’t think the team gets enough credit for that. It’s an immense record.”

This was after leading his team to a win, and thereby a drawn series, via a fighting double-century in the second Test in Dubai against Pakistan in 2013. They lost the first, a ‘stain on an otherwise clean sheet’ (their first overseas Test loss since Kolkata, 2010), as commented on by Smith himself.

Their method of dominance had by now fully evolved. They had become smart enough to know when to release their A-game, as in a Test one can ill afford to run at top gear all the time. In the final Test against Australia in Perth in 2012, they took confidence from rearguard efforts to save the Adelaide Test, to play at their best here, taking the series with a big win. Smith said it was the proudest moment of his career. It confirmed the validity of the ranking – they had already taken the No. 1 spot from England via a 2-0 series win, with a 51-run win at Lord’s earlier that year.

After losing ground for four days to India in Johannesburg, the first of a two-Test series in December last year, they not only saved the game, but almost chased down a mammoth target of 458, on the final day. Dale Steyn chose the next Test in Durban to wake from slumber and showcase his expertise, as he took nine wickets to ensure a ten-wicket win, and thereby the series, bidding farewell to retiring Kallis. Coolly.

The blot arrived at their impeccable ‘invincible’ phase, when an aggressive Australia, overflowing with confidence after annihilating England 5-0 at home, pipped them at the post at Newlands, snatching a series win, and eventually the No. 1 Test ranking.

The fight the home team displayed was a treat to watch. With fast bowler Mitchel Johnson’s newfound mojo undoing them in Centurion – he took 12 wickets in the game – Morkel upped his game to match Johson’s aggression, bowling into the body and keeping a nagging length, and Steyn made use of reverse swing on the fourth day to facilitate Australia’s collapse in Port Elizabeth. But with Steyn getting injured in the next game, his team handed the initiative back to the visitors, and despite resolute batting by De Villiers and the tail to save the series on the final day, they failed to stop Australia, succumbing to two magic balls, with little time left in the match, by body-defying Harris.

This was Smith’s final Test. And with him gone, joining the other pillars Kallis and Boucher into retirement, it seems an era has ended. It will be a new team, under a new captain, Amla, that takes on Sri Lanka next month.

Despite having perhaps fallen short of the standards of West Indies and Australia, during their periods of supremacy, South Africa have carved a relatively smaller period of greatness in the past decade, but no less graceful. For once, they can be described by a better adjective. If West Indies were ‘ruthless’ and Australia were ‘intimidating’, South Africa, during their best era, would be ‘clinical’.

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