Proteas

Proteas: Just part of moderate Test pile

2018-01-31 11:14
Proteas celebrate (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - South Africa, official rankings aside and fresh off toppling India 2-1, are very close to being justifiably branded the best Test team in the world.

But then so are India (still atop the much-debated, official ICC ladder), Australia and England, frankly.

The Proteas, now on 115 rating points, have closed the gap a little on the Indians (121), whilst Australia remain third on the pecking order (104) and England are currently fifth (99).

Just for the moment, perhaps, New Zealand have wriggled their way as a fifth element into the traditional “big four” terrain ... they presently lie fourth on 100 points, helped by the fact that England were so badly mauled (4-0) in the recent five-Test Ashes series Down Under.

But even if the Black Caps and Pakistan certainly have their moments, most Test connoisseurs would acknowledge that generally the key bragging rights in the long-format landscape lie between the other, more historically consistent quartet.

I would argue that there is very little to choose between the four, and that supremacy - either through the official rankings or in the eyes of observers - may change hands a few times in the foreseeable future.

In short, there is no great Test team in the world right now.

Certainly nothing to match the potent West Indies (ah, remember them?) combinations of the late 1970s and 1980s, the dominant Australian forces under the charge of Tubby Taylor and then Steve Waugh in the 1990s and early 2000s, or the spells from the mid-2000s when Duncan Fletcher-coached England sides became a significant handful again.

You might throw in the phases of the Graeme Smith-captained Proteas era when they earned seminal away series triumphs over most traditional rivals Australia and England in pretty quick succession, during a run of 14 series (2009 to 2013) without defeat.

But a glance at various “big four” series results over the last two or three years only reminds that no single, routinely imperious force exists these days.

Results see-saw fairly violently, with a team earning a handsome home-turf triumph, for example, quite quickly earning a bump-to-earth experience under notably different conditions abroad.

Here’s a brief appraisal of how I view the South African, Indian, Australian and English Test teams as things stand, possibly only bearing out my belief that they are all “pretty good” but with no one, notable powerhouse ...

South Africa

A feeling that they may be regrouping under new coach Ottis Gibson gathered plausibility with the most recent, albeit hard-earned 2-1 home victory over India.

Bull-necked though Faf du Plessis and company were during the series (only losing in a dead-rubber situation, remember) it nevertheless showed up some nagging frailties, most notably in the lack of regular heavy scoring from the orthodox batting department.

They have a re-emerging battery of pace bowling stocks - both young and more seasoned - to choose from, but an ongoing, hugely thorny issue is how to balance their team, even as memories of the great batting all-rounder Jacques Kallis gently fade.

There are enough high-quality individuals in the team to keep SA right up there with the cream, and beating Australia during March and early April would be a massive statement, seeing as no prior, post-isolation Proteas side has yet beaten the Baggy Greens on our terrain. (It flies strangely in the face of a wonderful, three-strong sequence of most recent series triumphs in Australia itself.)

Nevertheless, the current Proteas can’t be branded a truly legendary crew at this stage: not when you consider crashing to England in both of their last home and away series, and that 3-0 hiding in India a couple of seasons back.

India

There seemed little doubt, based on closely-fought events over the last few weeks, that India are gradually toughening in a meaningful way to the demands of Test competition in the southern hemisphere after it had been their bugbear for so long.

The bellicose, gifted Virat Kohli will clearly be a big batting factor regardless of pitch conditions, and the presence of several lively quick bowlers these days means the Indians have the potential to thrive - or at least be a lot better than before - on faster tracks.

For example, there is excitement among neutral commentators already about how swing bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar might prosper in English conditions later this year (a five-Test series in late UK summer).

Yet the cold fact remains that India still lost 2-1 in SA, and with major away series in both England and then Australia on the horizon, there could yet be a significant “correction” to their premier official status as things stand.

Remember that since South Africa’s return to favour in the early 1990s, India have not actually won a series in either of Australia or SA, and just once in England (2007) - that is anything but a statement of greatness.

Might they STILL be shown to be best equipped as slow, turning-track bullies over the course of the next year or so?

Australia

Australian cricket looked in a mess, frankly, when they crashed to a third successive home series reverse to fierce foes the Proteas last season, but give them this much: their constant capacity to bounce back with some stealth is impressive.

The Baggy Greens will come here boasting a real walloping of England in the recent Ashes, and no doubt anxious to preserve their record of not being beaten in SA in the post-isolation era.

Their four-man frontline bowling attack (Messrs Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins and Lyon) is about as settled as they come, although the impression remains that runs on sportier surfaces - perhaps one or two of those here soon? - could be in shortish supply if the mega-dangerous Steve Smith and ever-aggressive David Warner don’t spark.

The current Aussie crop also can’t hold a candle to the Waugh-era troops for undisputed domination of the planet because their Subcontinent record is so bilious over the last few years, in particular.

England

It says so much about how home conditions still play such a huge (unsatisfactorily so, perhaps?) role in determining series among the top nations that England can look a million dollars on their often seaming, cloud-covered pitches ... but then flounder when they tackle Indian turners or fast and true Australian surfaces.

Bear in mind that their last two results in both those countries are 4-0 humiliations over the course of five Tests each time.

So again, that is no reason to be able to crow about indisputably ruling the world, is it?

That said, veteran maestros of home bowling needs like James Anderson and Stuart Broad should come steaming back into the wickets column - after a really back-breaking winter in Australia - in looming home series against Pakistan and then the Indians.

England still have the gem that is Joe Root (Test average 53.28), and the fair claim that their tail often wags very spiritedly, but the specialist support for the skipper with the willow hasn’t been great shakes of late.

There is an enduring argument, as well, around whether England almost have too many “versatile” cricketers in their Test midst ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  cricket
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