The 50 over game is a curious animal. A team who just a few short months back managed to lose 4-0 to an almost terminally mediocre England side now sit at the top of the world rankings having defeated Australia 4-1 on their own turf. South Africa’s triumphant progress through Australia this winter has been truly momentous and, having narrowly failed to wrestle the number1 test spot from their hosts, they have taken the one-day crown.
It is an utter mystery to me how the rankings work to allow such an anomaly. However congratulations should be handed to South Africa. Their achievements in the past month or two have been truly outstanding and, while the test rankings do not reflect it yet, they can now claim to be the leading cricketing nation in the world.
What should add to South Africa’s satisfaction is the context. Australia, with good reason, have always felt that South Africa are mentally fragile, that they are capable of throwing away winning positions if the opposition turn the pressure up. They have a particular record of doing this against Australia, most notably in the 1999 World Cup and the Aussies have always been typically forward in coming forward to remind their rivals of this.
Once again this year, Australia began the phoney war early but South Africa did not rise to it as much as usual. This suggested a quiet confidence, that for the first time they felt that they did not need to get dragged into this because they were capable of doing their talking on the pitch. And so it proved. They found themselves in some difficult corners in the test series but managed to dig themselves out. And notably it was their younger players who often came to the fore, with AB de Villiers and the extraordinary J-P Duminy playing match-turning innings at crucial times. Unable to rely on South Africa beating themselves, the Aussies found themselves outgunned.
The 50 over series has seen a repeat of this. Both the first and the third matches hung in the balance but South Africa got their decision-making absolutely correct with the timing of the batting powerplay. This allowed them to unleash their new weapon, Albie Morkel, to smash the Australian bowlers all over the park to see his team to victory. Morkel has been compared to Lance Klusener and it is a fairly accurate analogy. He has a terrific eye and can hit the ball prodigious distances. South Africa may want to consider moving him a place or two up the order where he could take the game away from the opposition and ensure that close finishes are not an issue.
The last two victories in the series were in fact pretty comfortable. South Africa made light of the absence of their talismanic captain, Graeme Smith with Hashim Amla continuing his progress at the top of the order.
The challenge for South Africa is to maintain their standards. One of the great things about Australia’s dominance has been its longevity and the team’s capacity for renewal. England looked the likely team to take over the mantle in 2005 but they have faltered badly since. South Africa must show that they are up to it. They have the team and the depth to be the dominant force in world cricket.
If they are to achieve this, it will be no easy road. Australia will not give up their crown lightly, the current India team are looking increasingly like the real thing, Sri Lanka continue to progress and England have the raw materials, if not yet the consistency, to be a force again. We could be in for a fascinating period in international cricket, and it is South Africa who enter it in pole position.
By Stuart Peel