South Africa defeated Pakistan on the fourth day of the Centurion Test by an innings and 18 runs to end a summer that has sealed their status as the world’s best Test team. The manner of their ruthless charge to the top and then a sterner approach to defend it makes them worthy of the crown that moved from India to England and then from the Englishmen to South Africans in about 12 months. Only Graeme Smith’s side has managed to dish out quality cricket after claiming the ‘mace’ that has seen them destroy a vulnerable Pakistan team in the just concluded three-match Test series.
It is said that quality teams are built around quality pace bowlers capable of proving their mettle in different conditions. Be it the West Indian team of yore or the Australian team of the nineties – all of them boasted of a pace bowling attack that terrorised the opposition batsmen. This Proteas side is no different. In Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander they have two of the world’s top fast bowlers at the moment. Graeme Smith should feel lucky that he has at his disposal two very different bowlers as far as their approach and methods are concerned. Steyn generates swing at a rocket pace while Philander swings the ball at a decent speed with a teasing line and length. Morne Morkel, on the other hand, uses his tall frame to the full effect extracting bounce from unlikeliest of surfaces. Smith also has the option of throwing the rock to his veteran warhorse Jacques Kallis. Add to it the potential of Kyle Abbott who had a dream debut against Pakistan when he took seven wickets in the first innings.
Nothing seems to be going wrong with this Smith-led juggernaut.
In Smith they have a captain who has become the first man on the planet to lead his side in 50 Test victories; in Hashim Amla Proteas has a batsman who looks set to become a cricketing legend; and in Kallis they have an ageless performer. Everything seems to be working in their favour. However, there is still a missing link to this squad that differentiates it from the Australian teams of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting that won 16 Tests each on the trot. That missing link is the absence of a genuine and quality spinner. For South Africa that role is now being filled by Robin Peterson after Pakistan-born Imran Tahir failed to make a mark in international cricket. He made his Test debut way back in 2003 against Bangladesh and was pretty impressive, picking up five wickets in that match.
After being on the sidelines for a significant period of time, he was called back into the national team for the 2011 World Cup and he ended up being their leading wicket taker of the tournament. However, in the playing conditions that South Africa have encountered since the New Zealand tour of 2012, his role has been overshadowed by that of the pacers. Also, he is not a great turner of the cricket ball and relies on variations in flight. His batting down the order is an asset that adds value to his presence in the team. However, in favourable conditions he has proved to be more than a useful slow bowler.
The team has shown dogged approach in testing conditions – a hallmark of a strong team. It was one of those moments that gave them a new star in the away Australian series during the Adelaide Test when Faf du Plessis produced an epic innings on debut that saved them from a certain defeat.
For me, the team’s real Test lies when they visit the subcontinent. How they fare in the conditions that are more favourable to the spinners and batsmen than pacers will be interesting. This is not to say that the current squad lacks experience of playing in such tracks and atmosphere. Kallis, Smith, Amla, Steyn, Morkel among others are familiar with the demands. However, it is an altogether different challenge when you are considered to be the best in the world and travel with a reputation. South Africa have won a series in Australia since clinching the top rankings. How their batsmen will deal with the turning pitches and uneven bounce will be interesting to watch.