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South Africa: The new cricketing superpower - Chetan Narula column
by Chetan Narula
Aug 19, 2008
Nine times out of ten, a small round light at the end of a tunnel signifies an oncoming train. Ask Navjot Singh Sidhu and he will nod his head in amazing delight. The rise of South Africa in world cricket is akin to a powerful train one stop short of the Grand Central Station of the ICC Test Championship; that is the world number one spot.

Sample this. Their last home loss came against the all conquering Australians in early 2006 when Warne and McGrath bowled them out with alarming frequency. And their last away loss was in the fortress that is Sri Lanka, against the might of Jayawardene's bat and Murali's guile.

For almost two and a half seasons since then, the Proteas haven't been beaten in a Test series. They have beaten India, Pakistan, New Zealand and West Indies at home. They went on a triple header tour of the sub-continent and did fairly well there too. Beating Pakistan in their own backyard is no mean feat, even though they are at their weakest in years, and then there is the small matter of beating Bangladesh in Bangladesh. The biggest achievement though came in a straight battle for the number two spot in the ICC rankings against India. And they returned with their heads held high after a 1-1 draw early this year. Now how huge a result is that?

From December 2006 onwards, South Africa have displayed a consistency that has been rarely seen in world cricket, probably barring the Aussies. But then in the ODIs early in 2007, even they were challenged as based on some strong ODI performances including the magnificent 434-run-chase, South Africa became the no.1 ODI team, albeit for a short time before the 2007 World Cup.

So what constitutes their prowess? What is the root cause of their rise to the top?

Their captain, Graeme Smith, for one. When he first took over in 2003, he came across as a wrong choice. Some one who needed more time to be sure of his presence in the first eleven, rather than be the leader of them. But his swagger and aggressive nature, coupled with some scintillating batting, he got the team, and the support staff, to rally behind him. This can be seen from the way he started the 2003 England tour, with two double hundreds in two matches, earning the squad's respect, and now, five years later, a series win in the same country, making him arguably the best captain in world cricket at the moment.

His century in the second innings of the Lord's Test turned the tide on the home side and then, his ton in the second innings at Edgbaston will, for a long time to come, be a hallmark for what they call 'a captain's knock'. As one watched that particular innings, it was obvious that Smith's stay at the crease would have a huge impact on the result. No wonder then, his mere presence in the middle brought about a soothing effect on his dressing room as he was there until the job was done.

On two successive tours to England, Smith has had the better of two English captains, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, confining them to the annals of history. Surely this means that he is doing some thing stupendously right for South African cricket.

What he has also done right is identified his set of players who would always be the core group in important series, or matches, for that matter. By doing so, each player now knows his value to the side, the role that he is expected to play and obviously then, goes on to perform to the best of his abilities.

The best case in this light is that of Hashim Amla. Possessing a wristy technique that means he will play well on almost all surfaces, the Indian born player didn't have a particularly good initiation to his career but he was given a second chance, which he grabbed with both hands. During his epic 159 earlier this year against India in Chennai, it became more than apparent that he is the obvious choice to replace Jacques Kallis as the number 3 batsman, when the latter retires. The point is simple. He knows he has to anchor the innings wherever he bats, and Amla is doing so with aplomb in his second innings in international cricket, while Kallis has been able to bat that much more freely.

Or consider Neil Mckenzie. Smith is quite aggressive in his ways as well as his batting. And Mckenzie is a perfect foil to him. Why, the two recently got a world record 415 against Bangladesh. Smith's dash means that Mckenzie can bat out long hours at the crease, something he is naturally adept at. No wonder then, that on his return, Mckenzie averages an amazing 64 as compared to the mid-thirties in his earlier stint.

To back these top three, then comes the middle order comprising of the crafty Ashwell Prince, the indomitable Jacques Kallis, the ever solid AB de Villiers and the reliable Mark Boucher. The rear is brought up by the Morkel Brothers, who are finding their feet in international cricket, steadily and surely, and in no time, the shoes of Shaun Pollock will have been filled.

The bowling looks steady too. Paul Harris, though, not amongst the hallowed spinners in cricket, is sure enough to give the ball a twinge, and then there are the ageing Makhaya Ntini and the energetic Andre Nel in the spearhead role.

But what is most noteworthy is the rise of one Dale Steyn. When one saw him for the first time, the unusual swing of the bowling arm just at the point of delivery brought back the memories of 'White Lightning'. Allan Donald-comparisons notwithstanding though, he is turning out to be no less as 5 for 23 at Ahmedabad, part of a series haul of 15 against India, was enough to assure of his impending greatness.

Again, let us look at the bigger picture. The series win in England means that the Proteas are the definitive number two team in the world. Maybe a step more as they have one eye on Australia. Nobody would have to wait longer than December though to see where this title fight is headed when the top two ranked teams go head-to-head in a three Test series Down Under.

The only question that remains is: Can the Kangaroos stop this train from running them over?
 
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