Proteas in England

Proteas set for solid reign?

2012-08-21 07:46
Graeme Smith, Morné Morkel and Imran Tahir (AP)
Cape Town - South Africa’s stirring ascension to No 1 in the Test cricket world has coincided with perhaps their most impressive series win in the 20-year post-isolation era.

GALLERY: Proteas are No 1!

While this may have been their second triumph on the trot on English soil, considering that they had also done the business there as recently as 2008, it would be difficult to dispute that the latest achievement was the more sumptuous and convincing of the two.

By prevailing 2-0 the Proteas, powered by a cohesive and professional team dynamic from start to finish of the 2012 series, also gave England their heaviest home reverse in “scoreboard” terms since the 2001 Ashes, when they were beaten 4-1 by Steve Waugh’s Australians.

Four years ago, it required a monumental second innings of 154 not out from captain Graeme Smith for South Africa to win an ultimately decisive third Test they’d seriously looked like losing - had England instead clinched that Edgbaston match a momentum shift would have favoured the hosts going on to win the final encounter at The Oval (which they duly did in a dead rubber situation anyway to cut the series outcome to 2-1).

Here it was just so much more clear-cut: for all their opponents’ fits of very decent cricket, which continued right up to their brave surrender at Lord’s late on Monday, even home pundits have generously conceded that the Proteas largely had the whip hand over the course of the three engrossing Tests.

We saw so much more mature and clinical a South African side than had been the case in 2008 – certainly one which stubbornly, refreshingly refused to lapse into all-fall-down mode whenever the going got just a little tough for them.

It is obvious that Gary Kirsten’s calm, unflustered coaching style is paying dividends, the “10 percent tweak” he had insisted, upon appointment, was the only key step required to power the team to the top of the planet having kicked in appropriately.

Not that the coach and his lieutenants warrant (or, indeed, would seek) all the kudos for this achievement: the players, senior and more junior alike, have been the ones to more crucially lift the performance bar.

Now that the Proteas have reached the pinnacle, can they stay there for a meaningful time in, say, the manner of an imperious Waugh- or Ponting-era Aussie side?

Time will tell how they handle the different pressures associated with being No 1, rather than simply striving for that status, but in the short term the portents look quite good for them to retain their foothold.

In gleefully taking possession of the ICC Test mace, South Africa moved to 120 rating points, three ahead of now second-placed England and four ahead of Australia.

One suitably stiff obstacle does loom, reasonably shortly, for Smith’s heroic troops: another three-Test challenge abroad, against the Baggy Greens, which starts at Brisbane on November 9.

A South African-hailing coach, Mickey Arthur, is working on slowly rebuilding their much-altered unit as a genuine Test force, but settled South Africa should nevertheless still catch them in a transitional sort of mode and if the Proteas play properly ought to be fancied not to lose the series, at the very least.

Then it is into a slightly “soft” home summer, with the visits of eighth-ranked New Zealand and then fourth-placed Pakistan. South Africa will be heavily tipped to see off both of those foes comfortably enough on our pitches.

A plus from that scenario, nevertheless, would be getting familiar once again with home series victories, because one strange blot on the Proteas’ copybook in recent seasons has been failure to win series here against any of co-superpowers India, England and Australia ... while mostly playing so inspiringly overseas.

South Africa’s next blue-chip home series comes the following summer (2013/14) when India visit, although even they are a receding force at present, especially with core batting stalwarts Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman now retired.

England? Andrew Strauss has already served defiant notice that they will fight hard to seize back the mace, and on day five at Lord’s we were reminded, as if it were necessary, that this “corpse” still has a fairly strong pulse.

But they have intricate, in-house issues to grapple with first - the future (or not) of one KP Pietersen, for starters.

Also, on the immediate Test horizon for them is a tour of India, unnerved by knowledge that their Subcontinent record
remains ropey.

In the Proteas’ favour, as they try to turn their grabbing of the mace into a prolonged stranglehold on it, is the stability of their present squad.

Under a Kirsten regime, and presumably with the backing of Andrew Hudson and his selection panel, you are unlikely to see wholesale changes to the brew in the short to medium term.

Yes, there are some areas to mull over, like whether AB de Villiers will continue in the role of Test wicketkeeping successor to Mark Boucher for the time being ... I would bank on his still doing the job in Australia, where he will find conditions behind the stumps easier to deal with than in England where he mostly fared very credibly anyway.

With De Villiers wearing the gloves, the batting depth of the side just looks so comfortingly steely - don’t forget to add in Vernon Philander’s illuminating awakening as a factor with the blade - that it would perhaps be silly to disturb it for the next, important tour.

Imran Tahir’s acclimatisation to the team as an attacking spinner remains slow, to be frank, though again you just suspect that the wise men will be in no special hurry yet to seek alternatives.

Meanwhile most of the senior statemen in the “cream” batting slots continue to prosper admirably, with Hashim Amla arguably now the chief enforcer.

Yet the great Jacques Kallis stays an awesome all-round package at almost 37: in the rare instances he isn’t making meaningful runs, he is still bending his back for pressure-building or stand-breaking bowling spells or taking inspired slip catches.

As for the constantly big presence in the five-day environment who is Smith, a personal hunch is that he might lead the land for one last crusade to Australia, before implementing his stated goal of focussing more squarely on his role at the top of the order as twilight years approach.

When that less burdensome day comes, boy, will he deserve it ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

HAVE YOUR SAY: Will the Proteas enjoy a long run as the top cricket side in the world? Who do you see as the biggest threat to their world dominance? Send your thoughts to Sport24.

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