Colin Bryden

Challenge awaits new champs

2012-08-22 09:57
Sport24 columnist Colin Bryden (File)
Mickey Arthur spoke about Brave Cricket, which had a catchy ring to it but didn’t always translate to sensible play. Gary Kirsten hasn’t put a label to his style but his pragmatic, process-driven cricket has taken South Africa to the top of the Test table after their triumph in England.
It isn’t the first time the Proteas have topped the Test rankings - they were awarded the ICC mace in 2003 before the current ranking system came into being and had four months at number one in 2009 - but their current status is especially satisfying because they deposed the previous champions on their own soil.
There will be an almost immediate challenge to their supremacy because they have to go to Australia to play three Tests in November and December. If Australia win the series by any margin they will go from third to first.
The Proteas showed impressive maturity in an enthralling series in England. It’s easy to compare coaching styles but the man who has to make things happen on the field is the captain. Graeme Smith’s leadership was outstanding, through the attritional phases which were the norm for most of the series down to the frenetic last afternoon when England threatened to snatch an unlikely win.
Smith was willing to keep Imran Tahir bowling until the new ball was due, knowing that England had to keep chasing a win, which meant they had to keep taking risks against the ball spinning out of the rough. That Tahir took only one wicket and did not bowl well enough is another matter altogether - one of the aspects of South Africa’s performance which will need serious review, after time for celebration and a period of reflection.
The style of cricket played by both teams during the series was something of a throwback to a more conservative era of Test cricket, with batsmen putting a premium on their wickets and bowlers prepared to probe patiently on pitches which were largely unresponsive.
South Africa were unquestionably the better team. Their batsmen were more consistent and although the bowlers did not always fire in unison there was almost always someone capable of making a breakthrough.
Not everything was perfect. It is debatable whether AB de Villiers, a key batsman with a good record against Australia, should continue to keep wicket. Tahir’s bowling is an expensive luxury, although he did pick up eight wickets, and South Africa conceded far more no-balls (40) and wides (25) than England, whose tally was four and six respectively. One of those no-balls, off which Matt Prior was caught when the game was getting tense, could have been demoralising if Vernon Philander had not wrapped up the series soon afterwards.
Michael Vaughan, the former England captain, identified over-confidence as one of the reasons why England did not live up to their number one ranking. No sooner had they achieved the summit a year ago than there was unwise talk about becoming the team of the era or the Manchester United of cricket.
Such hubris should not deflect the Proteas. Kirsten and Smith will surely be aware that a magic wand has not been waved and that their team have suddenly become invincible. Sticking to the mantra of process and taking care of small details will be crucially important as they face up to their next challenge. Reaching number one is hard enough, staying there is at least as difficult.

Colin Bryden will be covering the England-South Africa series. He has reported on all four of South Africa’s previous tours of England since 1994.

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Read more on:    proteas  |  sa in england  |  colin bryden  |  cricket

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