1992-2012: SA’s best Test XI
Graeme Smith (Getty Images)
Cape Town - Time has flown by in a jiffy but the curtain is about to come down, at least in calendar-year terms, on the first 20 years since South Africa’s re-admission to Test cricket.
I had the enormous pleasure of being present at Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados, for the country’s once-off, “welcome back” Test against a still-formidable West Indies in 1992, which also marked the first ever meeting between the two cricketing powers.
It was, simply, an unforgettable experience, one which quite understandably demonstrated some naivety from a visiting side that had been in the apartheid-induced wilderness for 22 years - denying many gifted cricketers of all backgrounds and cultures opportunities at the most prestigious level - but was also very quick to illustrate how rapidly the country would re-assemble as a competitive force in the five-day game.
The dominance of Kepler Wessels’ side for pretty much four days of the Test - a remarkable achievement considering it sported 10 debutants - was only undone on day five when twin-Hurricanes Curtly and Courtney struck with pace-bowling venom to cruelly and dramatically swing the match West Indies’ way.
I have since watched Proteas’ Test matches at all the leading domestic venues, as well as at various away strongholds of such time-honoured leading rivals as England and Australia.
Like so many other bleary-eyed devotees, I have also monitored them at sometimes bodyclock-challenging hours on television from other parts of the planet.
Generally speaking, the post-isolation Test team has done South Africa proud: yes, there have been plenty of painful bruises at the hands of a mighty Australian machine, for instance, between the late 1990s and early 2000s, but more often than not our five-day outfit has been at least “thereabouts” on the world pecking order.
Certainly in Tests, the country has been rather less disaster-prone than it has at critical stages of one-day international matches or competitions, with the World Cup a particularly bogey-laden event since ’92.
I found assembling a Test XI to mark the first 20 years back in the fold both a difficult and surprisingly easy experience.
It was tricky in the sense of several quality players in various positions having to be overlooked - they will get honourable mentions, if you like, at the end of this piece.
But for the most part I also found it a reasonably seamless task, because statistical evidence shone very compellingly in the vast majority of cases.
As a broad rule, I tried to pick players based on their skills and majesty at their Test primes, so when you are looking at (absolutely essential choice anyway) Jacques Kallis, for instance, imagine the man in his amazing heyday as a genuine all-rounder.
Ditto Paul Adams ... contemplate his refreshing, novel earliest years when his uniquely eccentric action bamboozled so many comers, instead of his more innocuous Test twilight phase.
The strength of the current Proteas side - proudly No 1 in the rankings and having seen off England and Australia in successive away series - is reflected in no fewer than five of their ranks cracking the nod.This is my team:
1 Graeme Smith (capt) - 105 caps, 2002 to present: 8 569 runs at 49.53
Remarkable longevity as a successful captain, coupled with growing reputation for being a “slayer” of beaten, rival skippers. Also such a big, steel-jawed presence at the crease, with a penchant for really weighty innings, even if not the finest batsman aesthetically that you will ever see.2 Gary Kirsten - 101 caps, 1993 to 2004: 7 289 runs at 45.27
Another whose stroke-play wasn’t necessarily even the best in his own family ... but he’s never minded that sort of tag. Kirsten was an intelligent, gritty and industrious opener who knew his strengths and weaknesses and played accordingly. Responsible for some famous match-saving actions, too.
3 Hashim Amla - 65 caps, 2004 to present: 5 323 runs at 50.69
Part of a new age of dominators at the crease; an absolute joy to watch with his wristy enterprise and increasingly mastery of just about all other aspects of batsmanship. Significantly unflappable, and just gets more and more consistent.4 Jacques Kallis - 158 caps, 1995 to present: 12 980 runs at 56.92 and 282 wickets at 32.57
Little need to say anything, eh? Legend of the game, and an unparalleled, priceless part of the Test-team furniture for some 17 years, and counting ... 5 Daryll Cullinan - 70 caps, 1993 to 2001: 4 554 runs at 44.21
A singular man, but there have been many other singular, high-calibre cricketers. You want “easy on the eye”? Well then, watch DJ Cullinan in full cry, especially if the road is not littered with the stones of a certain Australian leg-spinner who, it must be said, mesmerised many others too. Remember also that he lost some potentially vintage years to isolation. Those stats are more than half decent, nevertheless ... 6 AB de Villiers - 80 caps, 2004 to present: 5 894 runs at 49.11
Considering the calibre of those above him in this order, there’s a good chance this team will be “pushing on” by the time De Villiers takes guard ... and going hard is his forte! Dazzlingly versatile sportsman, often evident in his enterprising, varied approach to swift accumulation of runs. Not bad to have a No 6 averaging just a tad under 50, yes?7 Mark Boucher (wkt) - 147 caps, 1997 to 2012: 5 515 runs at 30.30 and 555 dismissals
His batting fell away a fair bit in later years, but Boucher was always a no-fuss, ultra-reliable, record-smashing gloveman and at the peak of his powers also a scrapper of note at the crease. A mischievous thought might be to ask De Villiers to ‘keep in this XI, freeing up other selection opportunities, but forget it ... Boucher offered 15 years of mostly exemplary service. Besides, who else is there to enthusiastically say “ooh, I like it!” when a Proteas spinner bowls another straight one?8 Shaun Pollock - 108 caps, 1995 to 2008: 3 781 runs at 32.31 and 421 wickets at 23.11
Just look at his numbers ... which Test team wouldn’t want someone of Polly’s stature at No 8? Apart from being capable of either
gutsing it out for an occasional Test century after top-order failure or giving it a hearty smack before a declaration, his bowling was initially swift and penetrative and in later career eternally cunning and parsimonious.9 Dale Steyn - 60 caps, 2004 to present: 299 wickets at 23.79
He has been the planet’s top-ranked Test bowler for some time ... say no more? The Phalaborwa Express is richly respected the world over for his ability to land the ball regularly in the corridor of uncertainty while simultaneously nipping it away lethally from the right-hander. At his best when manic-eyed and in irresistible rhythm.10 Paul Adams - 45 caps, 1995 to 2004: 134 wickets at 32.87
Spin bowling: perhaps the one area of obvious limitation for South Africa in the last two decades. But who will ever forget the sensational arrival in the mid-90s of the frog in a blender? “Gogga” was a quirky, appealing character in more ways than just his bowling action, and for a while a glorious possessor of X-factor. You always want a slow bowler in your ideal Test side, and he is a comfortable enough choice, based on both superior average and strike rate to others tried. 11 Allan Donald - 72 caps, 1992 to 2002: 330 wickets at 22.25
“White Lightning” is one of the leading shock bowlers, in the most fulsome sense, of all time and would be an unlikely omission from a South African team throughout its Test history, never mind just since ’92.*Some notes on players bubbling under:
Peter Kirsten, Kepler Wessels, and then also customers like Brian McMillan and Fanie de Villiers, were examples of fine players who got the belated opportunity to show their Test-level qualities for South Africa in the early 1990s, although their best years had in most cases already passed them by. Lance Klusener came close as an all-rounder, as did big-blasting Herschelle Gibbs and the nuggety Ashwell Prince as specialist batsmen. The motor-beat Makhaya Ntini, so vital and inspired in raising the awareness of black African cricket, would have been my next cab off the fast-bowling rank, though spare a thought also for the injury-hampered left-arm slingshot Brett Schultz, a really fearsome foe at his best. Dave Richardson, of course, could have worn the ‘keeping gloves with aplomb had Boucher not been available for some reason.HAVE YOUR SAY:
Where do you differ - or don’t you? - with Rob Houwing’s selection? Send your thoughts to Sport24