South Africa shining

The way is clear for a long reign by the South Africans and, as they prepare to carry the mace off home, they deserve no less, writes Ted Corbett.

South Africa are on top of the world and happily — since cricket like boxing is in a healthier state when there is a strong heavyweight champion — there is no rival close enough to suggest they will be toppled any time soon.

India are trying to patch together a side after the retirement of Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman, Australia need time to rebuild and only unpredictable Pakistan seem ready to offer a challenge. The way is clear for a long reign by the South Africans and, as they prepare to carry the mace off home, they deserve no less.

The victory over England that placed them on the summit was comprehensive and all the more remarkable because, by after the first day of the series — they eventually won 2-0 — there was every chance they would be beaten.

As we look back now, there was never any danger to their side which breathed, ate, drank and dreamed victory and had the backroom staff to back their finest efforts.

Who did not admire this side of all the talents, particular since they have, like the rest of their country, joined those of us who enjoy the company of men of all races and who, in contrast with former South African sides, can adopt a lighter, more human touch.

They are not just the Rainbow Nation now as they live, love and laugh together; they relish their time alongside their neighbours.

In the land of space, sun and schools that promoted the ideal of the healthy body as well as an active mind, it is not difficult to be a sportsman in South Africa.

That has always been true and it is not surprising that in a land where the sportsman is a hero it was their status as outlaws that did as much as any embargo to bring them back into the world sporting community.

It has taken another 20 years to make their cricketers recognised throughout the world as champions. For a while they had another reputation as chokers but that went on the final day of the third Test against England at Lord’s — on the ground appropriately that is the home of cricket — when they first resisted and then conquered their fear of failure in the home straight.

Choking in the dash for the line as they have in the past might still have left them at the top of the world but it would have left doubts about their ability to keep their place.

My suspicion now is that after Australia, India and England have worn the crown in the last few years and lost it there will be a period of stability while South Africa show what champions need.

There is no question they are a marvellous, talented, hard-working side; a remarkable combination of youth and experience; with batsmen who can attack and defend; astonishing fast bowlers and a spinner it is easy to underestimate.

They are led by Graeme Smith, a leader almost from the moment he stepped into the Test team and now with the knowledge gleaned in 100 Tests in his head. He is the sort of leader, tall and burly, with a voice that carries authority, with a manner that at one and the same time encourages consultation but will clearly brook no argument.

You might follow him on to a battlefield just as comfortably as you would down the pavilion steps. No doubt he is a man’s man but one who took time off this tour to see his baby born. This is a man, as the South Africans said of their Boer War general and repeated when Mike Atherton held them at bay in Johannesburg in 1995.

Behind Smith are two men just as important but who rarely step into the limelight. On field is Jacques Kallis, quietly spoken, older but just as athletic if his slip catches are any indication and still full of runs.

People mock his run rate at their peril. Here is The Rock around which the rest of the side ebb and flow and he knows that if he is four hours at the crease there is another century in the offing. He is also The Sage. Ask him a question and somewhere in his cricket history he will have seen the answer. No wonder he and Smith field at first and second slip together.

In the shadows of the pavilion sits another quiet man; but you already know about the wisdom of Gary Kirsten after he nudged India to the top of the world. England treat their coach Andy Flower with reverence but they think just as highly of Kirsten.

It will be his care that has improved the stylish Hamish Amla until he is just about the best batsman in the world today, encouraged A. B. de Villiers to take the gloves — left empty by the injury to Mark Boucher — with confidence and make Boucher’s absence unnoticed. It was his willingness to leave the work of tutoring the fast men to Alan Donald, since Donald has, with some style, translated his ability into the work of a coach.

Kirsten’s reward came when Donald was confident enough to tell Dale Steyn what he needed to do to improve on the last day of the series.

The bowler who made most impression in England — partly because we had not seen him before — was the fast medium Vernon Philander, an English-style bowler, with a ton of experience and the ability to bowl off stump and a fraction outside all day long.

Those are the men who succeed in our county games: Sidney Barnes, Alec Bedser and at least 1,000 others. Philander would have delighted Bedser recently and he was a fine foil for Steyn, an attack dog, and Morne Morkel, a gentle giant until he got a batsman in his sights.

Moulding them all together was the spirit of Africa, the single-mindedness that inspired men like the Scottish explorer David Livingstone to wade into jungles, battle malaria, and ward off the wild animals in the wild days of the 19th century.

As for England, they reverted to type and got rid of their match winner instead of those who failed to manage his bad points.

They have won the public relations battle with him and his ego but that should never have been necessary. Now he is portrayed everywhere as a man without a future unless he grovels for his crimes. Meanwhile we have seen how feeble the batting looks where he is not in full flight. I sometimes think English cricket folk don’t want success. Their first reaction to victory is to find reasons to break down their team. Mike Gatting’s side that wiped the floor with Australia in 1986-7 had gone by 1989, and now there is a danger that the triumphant team of recent years will follow the same losing trail.

I keep hearing that “England will always have 11 Test players” as if that had any merit.

I would like to hear “England will always be at the top.” Instead they have handed that place to South Africa — without a fight until it was too late.