25 years: Our best Proteas Test XI

2017-04-19 12:21
Graeme Smith (Getty Images)

Cape Town - Quarter of a century ... yes, if you were already an adult at the outset the mere expression triggers a certain, uncomfortable reminder that you may be getting on just a bit.

But that is almost precisely how much time has passed since South Africa returned to Test cricket from a 22-year, apartheid-caused exile in Bridgetown, Barbados, an event also marking their maiden, massively symbolic clash with West Indies.

It was exactly 25 years ago on Tuesday (April 18) that Richie Richardson and Kepler Wessels walked out for the toss at Kensington Oval, ahead of a compelling contest which South Africa spiritedly bossed for generous stretches until the combined, hostile bowling might of beanpoles Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh turned the once-off match on its head on dramatic day five.

I attended that pioneering, and in some respects tumultuous Caribbean trip in a newspaper-reporting capacity, an event that I have found, and will probably continue to find, hard to emulate or beat in treasured sporting memory terms.

The competitiveness of the South African side - only dual-international Wessels not a Test debutant - in that match really set the tone for the lion’s share of the next 25 years to this point, with the eventually rebranded Proteas more often a force than not in the game’s premier format - and sometimes top of the global rankings, too.

On the infrequent occasions they have genuinely been “down”, it tends not to be for very long, as evidenced in recent months when, under the guiding hand of coach Russell Domingo and captain Faf du Plessis, they have clawed right back from highly unusual seventh to second - and with loftier aspirations than that clearly freshly in mind.

South Africa have played 85 series (including any once-off Test occasions) from 1992, triumphing in 52 of them - win percentage 61.17 - sharing 15 and losing 18.

So it makes choosing an SA “team of the era” a challenging task, even if there are certain very clear-cut and obvious selections.

My bias - and hopefully some will agree understandably so? - has generally been toward players who had either all or almost all of their first-class careers within the 25-year period, at the expense of those who didn’t get to amass really meaningful tallies of caps as they had already been on the cricketing block for a fair while by the time isolation came to an end.

Into that category fall steely players like my schoolboy hero Peter Kirsten, Brian McMillan, Fanie de Villiers, Daryll Cullinan and David Richardson, although I made an irresistible exception for strike-bowling legend Allan Donald; he still managed 72 usually incisive appearances.

Similarly, there are some much more recent, highly promising customers who miss out given the still relative infancy of their Test careers at present.

Some traditionalists will not approve of my decision to forgo a specialist spinner, in preference for unashamed acknowledgement of the country’s substantially superior pace firepower by including a quartet of out-and-out speedsters.

But perhaps imagine that the phantom Test match is being played on a spicy Wanderers surface, with damp weather stubbornly anticipated to be around.

Here, then, is my choice ...

1. Graeme Smith (captain)

The Proteas’ longest-serving and most iconic Test captain of post-isolation times, “Biff” was a colossal presence in every sense, starting with his unforgettable, back-to-back double centuries (Edgbaston and Lord’s) as skipper aged only 22. He still shares with Neil McKenzie the all-time world record opening partnership in Tests of 415. Tests: 116. Runs: 9,253 at 48.70.

2. Herschelle Gibbs

The happy-go-lucky Gibbs’ natural, daredevil approach to batting made him a fine foil for Smith upfront, even if he might have found a berth lower down here, too. Remember that Gibbs averaged 47 once converted to an opener’s role in Test matches and all of his 14 centuries were in that capacity. Tests: 90. Runs: 6,167 at 41.95.

3. Hashim Amla

A bastion of serenity and meticulous accumulation for many years, wristy Amla is a shoe-in for “first drop”. He is still the lone South African to sport a Test triple century (The Oval), and remembered for a positively titanic personal series in India in 2010 (253*, 114 and 123*).Tests: 103. Runs: 7,952 at 49.39.

4. Jacques Kallis

The rock. Quite simply that, in an extraordinary, marathon career as fully-fledged all-rounder (a dying art globally) for SA. Statistically, Kallis has huge claims to being best cricketer of all time, even if charisma and PR visibility wasn’t really his thing, ever so slightly limiting his affection in some circles. Tests: 165. Runs: 13,206 at 55.25. Wickets: 291 at 32.63.

5. AB de Villiers

One of the most watchable, gung-ho of stroke-players in a modern game that has cranked up dramatically across all formats for batting tempo and sheer demoralisation of bowlers. Brilliant fielder and sometimes gloveman, into the bargain. Tests: 106. Runs: 8,074 at 50.46.

6. Gary Kirsten

The awkward-technique left-hander may seem a wee bit out of place in this berth, considering his main career claims as a tenacious upper-order batsman. But five and six was the terrain he operated in during his twilight months in Test cricket … and, unsurprisingly, with some success. A calming, mentally sturdy and gradually counter-punching presence if my team has an unlikely top-order wobble! Tests: 101. Runs: 7,289 at 45.27.

7. Mark Boucher

Like his great friend Kallis, a true veteran of national colours. An increasingly reliable ‘keeper who holds a multitude of records – including being runaway custodian of most dismissals in the five-day arena on the planet. Prepared to bite the bullet in a batting crisis, too. Tests: 146. Runs: 5,515 at 30.30. Dismissals: 555 (532 catches, 23 stumpings)

8. Shaun Pollock

Product of stellar family genes … and how often it showed. First a fiery, genuine speedster, then remodelled after injuries into a highly durable, superbly accurate fast/medium-pacer. Loved using the long handle when the situation warranted it, and possessed many of the best shots. Tests: 108. Runs: 3,781 at 32.31. Wickets: 421 at 23.11.

9. Dale Steyn

Outswing king. As purring, pedigreed a fast bowler with a rhythmical action as you will ever find, and blessed by fine fitness and athleticism until unusual, major injuries began to set in as he clicked into his thirties. Still not throwing in the towel, mind, and now only four scalps shy of Pollock’s SA record 421. Tests: 85. Wickets: 417 at 22.30.

10. Allan Donald

He’s the inevitable, main head-hunter, if you like, in this combo. “White Lightning” was devilishly quick and aggressive at his best, a true nightmare to face on a pitch with good carry and bounce. Tests: 72. Wickets: 330 at 22.25.

11. Makhaya Ntini

The admirable, motor-beat element  of this attack … a man who prided himself in charging in purposefully even if it was in the lengthening shadows of a warm, challenging day. SA’s rags-to-riches story; a champion who had spent his humble youth herding cattle in rural Mdingi. Tests: 101. Wickets: 390 at 28.82.

Bubbling under:

First cab off the rank if you did take the more orthodox route of picking a spinner would have to be Paul “Gogga” Adams, who especially bamboozled opponents with his novel action in the earliest phase of his 134-wicket Test career, although Paul Harris was an under-rated factor for excellent control (economy rate 2.65) at one end which allowed SA’s seamers to attack with some freedom from the other.

Pacemen to slot seamlessly in if injury took hold of one or more of the premier quartet listed would include Vernon Philander, De Villiers, Morne Morkel, the rapidly emerging Kagiso Rabada and, never forget, a certain Brett Schultz, the burly left-arm slingshot curtailed to nine Tests but sporting 37 wickets at 20.24!

Batsmen challenging the incumbents listed would most certainly include Cullinan, perhaps the most classically-pleasing stroke-player of all in the period; international cricket only arrived some nine years after his first-class debut although he still managed to average 44.21 from 70 Tests.

Others in contention would include men like the gritty Ashwell Prince, Neil McKenzie, the late Hansie Cronje and current captain Faf du Plessis, who has played 40 Tests thus far and averages only a touch under 45.

If Kallis suddenly couldn’t be considered, rugged, resilient, all-rounders coming to the fore would include McMillan and Lance Klusener.

Challengers to Boucher as ‘keeper? Well, if this team had to win to save my life, I must confess that I would be seriously tempted to include booming wunderkind Quinton de Kock at the expense of the considerably more seasoned first-choice provided for this exercise.

Already the 22-year-old De Kock is producing superlative catching and stumpings, not to mention averaging 50-plus with the bat after just 19 Tests, whilst Richardson was a feisty competitor in his 42 Tests from the age of 32.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  graeme smith  |  cricket


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