Cape Town - The Proteas’ possible hold on the No 1 spot in the Test rankings for the end of another annual cycle looks increasingly tenuous.
Vultures are circling in the mounting hope of unseating them ... and those scavenging birds of prey are Indian and Australian, the two teams respectively the nearest challengers as things stand.
India don’t have any further cards to be able to play for their own good ahead of the April 1 cut-off, when the ICC hands an elevated sum of $1 million (about R16.7m at present) to the premier side, as they are done with Tests for the cycle, so require struggling remaining performances from the Aussies and Proteas to steal the mantle.
South Africa have two further encounters to negotiate before they wrap up Test business for the year, whilst Australia still have to play New Zealand away in a two-Test series during February.
Not only is touring, presently sixth-ranked England’s ongoing mastery of the four-Test series against South Africa an obvious imperilment to the Proteas’ reign, but changing weather on the Highveld of late only adds to the hazards as AB de Villiers and company attempt to come from 1-0 down to steal the series 2-1.
The third Test starts at the Wanderers on Thursday, whilst the final clash of the series is scheduled for not far up the road in Centurion.
Apart from having to belatedly hit their straps from a purely cricketing point of view - series defeat by any margin definitely sees them lose top spot – South Africa may well also have to dodge the elements if they are to strike back meaningfully in the series and at the very least share it.
Earning a 1-1 outcome would give them a chance of staying No 1, as that scenario would require the Baggy Greens to clean-sweep the mini-series across the Tasman - Wellington and Christchurch Tests - to fractionally dislodge them.
But the forecast for the Wanderers is not too promising, with the prospect of varying amounts of rainfall on several of the scheduled match days - better news for drought-ravaged Highveld farmers than for domestic cricket-lovers, perhaps.
Still, matches at the Bullring tend to proceed at a good pace, and a gloomy, low cloud-cover sort of environment without too many rain disruptions could make the pitch fairly spicy and turn the Test into something of a lottery - maybe a better hallmark for the team that is trailing in a series?
Speaking of drought, the Proteas are in the rare midst of their own: failure to win at Newlands over New Year meant they stretched to eight their winless run in Tests.
This eclipsed their previous worst spell of the post-isolation era of seven, between 2005 and 2006.
Then, they drew the final Test of a series in the West Indies they’d already clinched, and went on to lose five and draw just one of six Tests in back-to-back series against Australia.
South Africa’s last, protracted barren spell of the pre-isolation phase came between 1963 and 1965 - a 10-Test sequence without a victory.
After drawing the fifth Test of a shared series in Australia, SA drew 0-0 in a three-Test series in New Zealand, lost 1-0 in a five-Test series at home to England, and drew the first Test of 1965 away to the same foes.
The drought famously ended in the second Test at Nottingham, where a 21-year-old Graeme Pollock wowed the Trent Bridge crowd with his blistering stroke-play in successive, match-swaying knocks of 125 and 59.
SA earned a draw in the final Test to secure the series 1-0.
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