Sailing back to a quarter of a century, South Africa were playing a Test, their first in 22 years. The apartheid-caused exile had cut shot many flourishing careers a few that could have gone on to break and set records. Nevertheless, on April 1992, South Africa were finally playing a Test. The venue was Bridgetown in Barbados, and it was a tour that almost did not happen.
At the fag end of busy season, the exhausted Proteas, led by Kepler Wessels played the strong West Indies side, for the very first time in their cricketing chronicles and almost beat them but for the brilliance of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh…
Over the next two and half decades, South Africa emerged as one of cricket’s strongest units. They often enjoyed supremacy in the ICC Test Rankings. Between 2006 and 2015, South Africa remained unbeaten in an overseas Test series. Currently, they sit at the No. 2 spot in the Test Rankings, after India.
Twenty-five years since return to Test cricket, Suvajit Mustafi looks at South Africa’s best Test XI since readmission.
Graeme Smith (2002-14) — Captain
Smith still enjoys a colossal stature in world cricket. South Africa’s longest-serving captain since he was entrusted with the job at 22, Smith was also one of the finest and grittiest openers during his playing days. He comfortably seals this spot; with Hansie Cronje not finding a place in the side, Smith is the easy choice for leader.
Smith’s record with off-spin may be ordinary but he will still have a role to play as a part-timer considering the dearth of spin options.
Tests: 117 | Runs: 9,265 | Ave: 48.25 | HS: 277 | 100s: 28 | 50s: 38
Wickets: 8 | Ave: 110.62 | BB: 2-145 | SR: 177.2 | Catches: 169
Herschelle Gibbs (1996-08)
Outrageous, controversial, entertainer, Gibbs is in a league of his own. His flamboyance wins him the opening spot over Gary Kirsten’s grit. In addition, it gives a good left-hand-right-hand balance at the top. Smith and Gibbs have batted together in 68 innings, amassed 3,274 runs at 50.36.
Gibbs, an impact player, has played some of the most daredevil knocks for South Africa. The game has also seen fewer better fielders than this man.
Tests: 90 | Runs: 6,167 | Ave: 41.95 | HS: 228 | 100s: 14 | 50s: 26 | Catches: 94
Gary Kirsten (1993-2004)
Kirsten’s fame as a coach can be attributed to the same principles that he followed during his long vigils at the crease. Focused, disciplined, gritty and blessed with the ability of sea-like temperament, Kirsten was one of the pillars of South African dominance in the 1990s.
While he has batted 149 innings as an opener, he averages over 65 as a middle-order batsman. The average further boosts up to almost 71 at No. 3 and therefore, he makes a strong case at that spot.
Post the emergence of Smith, Kirsten was happy to shift to the middle-order and till the end of his career, he performed with distinction.
Amid the Amlas and the Kallises, it is Kirsten who seals this spot.
Tests: 101 | Runs: 7,289 | Ave: 45.27 | HS: 275 | 100s: 21 | 50s: 34 | Catches: 83
Hashim Amla (2004- )
Despite his immense talent, Amla was a slow starter in international cricket. He has made up for it with his run-manufacturing ability, serene strokeplays and calm demeanour. He may have got most of his success at No. 3, but he bats a drop lower in this side to accommodate Kirsten.
From being written off for his ‘flawed’ technique to emerging as one of South Africa’s greatest batsmen, Amla will be the fulcrum of this side’s batting. In 2012, Amla became the first South African to breach the 300-mark when he scored 311 at The Oval. He remains South Africa’s only triple-centurion.
Tests: 103 | Runs: 7,952 | Ave: 49.39 | HS: 311 | 100s: 26 | 50s: 32 | Catches: 91
Jacques Kallis (1995-2013)
Statistically Kallis presents a case of being termed as the greatest cricketer. A treat to the sore eyes, Kallis was a batsman of tremendous repute and consistency; on his day he could even run through the best of batting line-ups with his pace and swing. He remained amongst the safest fielders till his last day in the office.
Usually a No. 4 batsman, Kallis drops down a number in this star-studded side to provide balance. Apart from his bountiful runs, he also acts as the fifth pacer of the side.
Tests: 166 | Runs: 13,289 | Ave: 55.37 | HS: 224 | 100s: 45 | 50s: 58
Wickets: 292 | Ave: 32.65 | BB: 6-54 | 5w: 5 | SR: 69.2 | Catches: 169
AB de Villiers (2004- )
When talent meets temperament and hard work, the resultant is success. AB is a rare breed. A crowd-puller like no one, de Villiers can demoralise the best of bowlers with his 360-degree strokeplay. On the other hand, the same man can exhibit an ocean of patience to bat out a day. He is one of the finest of all-time — and we are talking merely batting here.
He is also an excellent fielder and can don the big gloves with good success. If needed he can also chip in with wickets with his gentle medium-pace.
Tests: 106 | Runs: 8,074 | Ave: 50.46 | HS: 278* | 100s: 21 | 50s: 39 | Catches: 197
Quinton de Kock (2014 – )
Before you ask how Mark Boucher or Dave Richardson could be overlooked, let me clarify that we are looking at a once-in-a-generation cricketer in de Kock. The baby-faced South African can go on to emulate even Adam Gilchrist across formats; in fact, at this stage, de Kock’s numbers actually look better.
De Kock is one of the most exciting batsmen in the modern game, thanks to his father who got him out of baseball and ensured cricket was not bereft of him. His fearless striking apart, de Kock is a more-than-dependable bet behind the stumps which makes him indispensable at the moment.
Tests: 19 | Runs: 1,333 | Ave: 51.26 | HS: 129* | 100s: 3 | 50s: 9 | Dismissals: 81
Shaun Pollock (1995-2008)
The Pollock family has been great servants of South African cricket. The careers of Shaun’s father and uncle career might have come to premature ends; however, doing perfect justice to the great genes, Shaun made the best use of it. Pollock was amongst the greatest all-rounders in the history of the sport. He could use the long handle to great effect but batting apart, he could claim a stake at most world XIs simply because of his bowling prowess.
Starting with lively pace and then moulding himself to a line-and-length bowler, Pollock’s strength lied in his accuracy and ability to move the ball both ways. He is also typically credited with the invention of the slow bouncer.
Tests: 108 | Runs: 3,781 | Ave: 32.31 | HS: 111 | 100s: 2 | 50s: 16
Wickets: 421 | Ave: 23.11 | BB: 7-81 | 5w: 16 | SR: 57.8 | Catches: 72
Vernon Philander (2011- )
To go ahead and pick Philander, I had to look beyond Makhaya Ntini, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and even Fanie de Villiers. Brett Schulz with his left-arm express pace could have added variety, but injuries restricted his career to 9 Tests. Philander has great numbers at his disposal.
In a country that has produced express pacers, Philander’s strength lies in his discipline. More of a wicket-to-wicket bowler, Philander can move the ball at decent speed and has the ability to attack the stumps with great control for long hours. He has run through sides and possesses the ability to win Tests on his own.
He is more than handy with the bat and his batting record illustrates the same.
Tests: 43 | Runs: 1,009 | Ave: 24.02 | HS: 74 | 50s: 5
Wickets: 161 | Ave: 22.39 | BB: 6-44 | 5w: 11 | SR: 49.5 | Catches: 13
Dale Steyn (2004- )
In a generation that saw dearth of great pace bowling, Steyn is an inspiration and his popularity transcends boundaries. Steyn bowls at tremendous pace, is accurate and can swing the ball, a combination that makes him lethal, and arguably South Africa’s greatest bowler.
While Steyn’s out-swinger has floored the best, his ability to excel on flat subcontinent tracks makes him all the more special. He has been the greatest bowler in the world in the last decade.
Tests: 85 | Wickets: 417 | Ave: 22.30 | BB: 7-51 | 5w: 26 | SR: 41.4 | Catches: 22
Allan Donald (1992-2002)
There was more to ‘White Lightening’ Donald than being Steyn’s predecessor. South Africa’s return to international cricket in 1991-92 was inspiring. If one man is to be credited for their early success, it has to be Donald. With an enviable classical action, Donald darted out balls consistently over 90 mph.
Conditions did not matter to Donald, who could wreak havoc in any sort of surface. He was already 25 when he played his first Test. Had he been fortunate to embrace Test cricket a few years earlier, he could have well breached 500-wicket mark. All said and done, Donald’s is a career South Africans take pride in.
Tests: 72 | Wickets: 330 | Ave: 22.25 | BB: 8-71 | 5w: 26 | SR: 41.4 | Catches: 22
12th man: Jonty Rhodes (1992-2000)
Cricket has not seen a better fielder than Rhodes. Period. Otherwise a poster boy and a decent batsman, Rhodes is a larger-than-life character and will be forever remembered for some of the most remarkable catches and stopping more runs on the field than any one else.
Tests: 52 | Runs: 2,532 | Ave: 35.66 | HS: 117 | 100s: 3 | 50s: 17 | Catches: 34
Paul Adams (1995-2004)
Once upon a time, there were the likes of Hugh Tayfield and Aubrey Faulkner. Since then, South Africa have struggled to find quality spinners. Adams made more news for his unusual action than efficiency, but he had his moments under the sun with his Chinaman bowling. He is the sole spinner in the squad.
Test: 45 | Wickets: 134 | Ave: 32.87 | BB: 7-128 | 5w: 4 | SR: 66.0 | Catches: 29
Mark Boucher (1997-2012)
Had this side been made a year earlier, Boucher would have comfortably walked into the XI but for de Kock. Boucher is the general you would like to go in a war with. A gritty batsman, a fine wicketkeeper, Boucher is the standby wicketkeeper in this squad.
Tests: 147 | Runs: 5,515 | Ave: 30.30 | HS: 125 | 100s: 5 | 50s: 35 | Dismissals: 555
Fanie de Villiers (1993-98)
A wonderful bowler who also relied on cutters, Fannie was one of the finest exponents of swing bowling in the 1990s. He was a trier who overcame injuries and language barriers to make a mark for himself. Injuries played a role in downsizing his promising career.
A master of the slower ball, de Villiers bowled a nagging line and length, varying his pace, often smothering batsmen as Donald went at them at full throttle.
Test: 18 | Wickets: 85 | Ave: 24.27 | BB: 6-23 | 5w: 5 | SR: 56.5 | Catches: 11