TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
A starry, starry sky swirled above Lord’s as an electric afternoon melted into evening on August 20, 2012. Was the sparkle up above a reflection of the stars shining in the eyes of the South Africans sprinkled in the pubs around St John’s Wood that magical night?
Hours earlier, SA had won a victory for the ages. Nerve had been held along with catches, decisions had dovetailed with destiny, and the men of the hour had been given their mace – England had been beaten to make Graeme Smith’s team the No. 1 side in test cricket.
Over the next three years, SA built a dynasty. Thirteen victories in 21 tests – just three of them lost – left no doubt that they were the finest team in the game. By how much? Officially, by the 19 points their lead swelled to in the rankings.
That was the scale of SA’s superiority as recently as July. Five months on, they are on top by only four points.
Where has it all gone wrong? In India, where SA failed to bat well enough on atrocious pitches to beat opponents whose only real threat, with bat or ball, was off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin.
Now, with an unsettled but respectable England side in their midst itching to reclaim some of the ground they lost in going down 2-0 to Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates last month, push has come to shove for SA.
If England leave these shores having avenged that 2012 defeat, India or Australia will be the new No. 1 side.
Was what happened to SA in India an aberration suffered by a side who have the character to pick themselves up, or is it the clanging alarm of a team in decline?
“We need to remember that the test series was played at the end of the tour,” former selection convenor Andrew Hudson said. “The longest I was in India was about six weeks, so to be there for 72 days is a challenge.
“Also, the wickets were not what our guys are used to. The pitches required application that the batsmen did not show.
“I don’t think SA suddenly slipped. I think a combination of factors led to that (3-0) outcome.”
Two of those factors were “the dependency on Hashim (Amla) and AB (de Villiers), and Hashim batting at No. 4 when he used to bat at No. 3”.
Hudson left Dean Elgar out of that equation, but the point stands: Elgar, Amla and De Villiers scored more than half of SA’s runs in India.
And that with Amla having recorded his lowest average – 16.85 – in a series of four or more innings since India’s tour to SA in 2006-07: 22 rubbers ago.
The problem, Hudson said, was the gaps between the senior players in a team that soared to No. 1 on the shoulders of giants like Smith and Jacques Kallis.
“In the past we had a solid top five, and while I’m not trying to blame the new guys who have come in the fact is that the top five looks different now from an experience point of view, and test cricket is all about good starts and batting as a unit.”
Amla has had 115 innings at No. 3, where he averages 55.58. In his 26 trips to the crease at No. 4, that drops to 39.16. Overall, he averages 50.64.
But no-one represents the glass half-empty view of where SA are as a team than Dale Steyn. Cricket’s pre-eminent fast bowler was Banquo’s ghost in India, where a groin injury limited his involvement to the first innings of the series.
The signs that he will be fit for Kingsmead on December 26 are promising. However, compare Steyn in the full, furious, fabulous cry of his pomp to the increasingly fragile athlete he has become and you have an accurate picture of how the side whose success he has been so central to have ebbed away.
SA remain a fine team, but their sky is now more cloudy than starry.