Armed with ingenuity

The South Africans in Perth, after winning the series against Australia. South Africa has all the qualities to be a durable No. 1.-AP

With Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Alviro Petersen, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander at his disposal, Graeme Smith, a terrific batsman although not the most masterful of strategists, has the requisite firepower to take South Africa to the realm of all-time great units, writes Arun Venugopal.

Let’s forget the rankings for a while — however important they seem even in an era where teams move up and down the points chart with the certainty of an elevator. Not long ago did India and England experience the fleeting nature of the No. 1 position, achieving it in Test cricket only to lose it just as quickly.

That their rise to the top was built on unsustainable foundations was established beyond doubt. Both sides clung to the comforts offered by conditions at home but faltered abroad (although England seems to have righted its approach in the ongoing series against India).

That is why South Africa ought to be celebrated. Built on consistent success overseas — the team hasn’t lost a Test series abroad since it went down 0-2 to Sri Lanka in July-August 2006 — the African nation’s progress has been unobtrusive but not on infirm ground. To put its accomplishments in perspective, South Africa has won in England and Australia twice each in the last four years. It also became the first side to clinch back-to-back series victories in Australia since West Indies in 1988-89 and 1992-93. In the last six years, South Africa has won six away series and drawn two.

The 1-0 series victory in Australia recently provided official confirmation of its status as the No.1 Test team in the world. South Africa is, however, far removed from other top sides of the past. For instance, it doesn’t have the emasculating swagger of the West Indies teams of the 1970s and 80s. Neither does it own the gun-slinging cold-bloodedness of Australia in the early 2000s.

But Graeme Smith’s men have manufactured their own version of greatness and haven’t been loath to employ it repeatedly. Their triumphant tales have revolved around uncomplicated, conventional methods: a bouquet of very good players playing solid, determined cricket. But unlike some of the South African teams of the past which remained slaves to templates and found it hard to break away from set plans, this bunch is more ingenious. In short, there has been greater inclination to find different, context-specific ways to tackle adversity.

The Adelaide Test was an instance when that trait revealed itself. Having conceded the lead and the first-mover advantage in Brisbane, South Africa entered the second Test disadvantaged even further. J. P. Duminy, who announced his arrival with a watershed debut series in Australia in 2008, injured his heel after play on the first day of the Brisbane Test. His absence eventually paved the way for another debutant to come in and influence the course of the series.

One is not certain whether Faf du Plessis himself would have envisaged such a fairytale beginning. But the circumstances he found himself in, in Adelaide — in both the innings — demanded he dive deep into his reservoirs of mental strength. The 28-year-old did infinitely more than what was expected of him.

South Africa, asked to score 430 for a win, was badly placed at 77 for four at the end of day four. Du Plessis and AB de Villiers then charted a strategy that revolved around attritional batting — a style that’s fading out amid the swelling run-rates that has characterised the modern game. There’s a reason why not many cricketers tread on that territory. Batting out time takes as much out of you as it drains the opponent — technically, physically, and mentally. It was a surprise to see de Villiers, a compelling go-getter, shun his natural instincts. South Africa scored 1.67 runs per over that innings, de Villiers a 220-ball 33.

Once he got out, Australia began to sniff victory again. That bid was duly thwarted by Jacques Kallis, who, after straining his hamstring on day one of the Test, batted courageously despite struggling to run. Du Plessis, meanwhile, brought up a hundred on debut in addition to a fifty in the first innings. With just two wickets in hand, the Proteas clinched a draw that, actually, had the resounding impact of a win. Du Plessis remained unconquered, having batted for more than six hours. What he had also ensured with his patient batting was that Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus, both of who had a big workload, were rested for the next Test for fear of a breakdown. The decision severely hindered Australia’s prospects in Perth.

South Africa played more like a champion side at the WACA, setting agendas and dominating the game. Du Plessis scored yet another crucial fifty in the first innings but it was Amla and de Villiers who produced awe-inspiring batting performances in the second essay to set Australia an improbable total. There was a substantial amount of emotion swirling around the stadium what with Ricky Ponting playing his last innings. His dismal run in the lead up to Perth had prompted the decision.

South Africa, though, had no intentions of sending any farewell gifts to Ponting, prising him out cheaply in both the innings. But it gave a thoughtful guard of honour when Ponting walked in to bat in his final International innings. The gesture moved even the tough-as-old-boots former Australian captain. Michael Clarke, the current Australian skipper, was named man-of-the-series for his glut of runs (576), including two double tons.

Criticised on several occasions for its lack of killer instinct, South Africa has now learnt to impose itself on the opponent and land debilitating blows. It was a fact acknowledged by Ponting. “That was them trying to impose themselves on the series and they did it better than I have seen any team take a game away from the opposition before. They put us under more pressure than I think we have been under for a long time so they thoroughly deserved to win this series."

Smith was realistic enough to admit that it wasn’t a perfect series with injuries and the lack of a proper spinner (Imran Tahir’s form was abysmal). But, surely, the side found heroes whenever it wanted them — the likes of du Plessis and Robin Peterson stepping up to the plate. With Kallis, Amla, de Villiers, Alviro Petersen, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander at his disposal, Smith, a terrific batsman although not the most masterful of strategists, has the requisite firepower to take South Africa to the realm of all-time great units.

Its tendency to choke, especially in ICC world events, hasn’t been redressed yet. But for a team this good — and, importantly, mentally equipped for challenges — a World Cup title shouldn’t remain unattainable for too long.