Sport

Proteas: Being 'the best' is more than sum of its parts

Neil Manthorp

Victory against New Zealand will not assure Graeme Smith's Proteas team the status they crave -- greatness.

Jacques Kallis. (AFP)

The best team in the world beating the second worst among Test-playing nations does not, in itself, constitute anything to get excited about. The manner of victory, however, might.

There are established landmarks for greatness, either for teams or individuals. Certainly, there are guidelines – averaging over 50 as a batsman is one of the most common, but even that is no assurance of status. Just ask Sri Lanka's Thilan Samaraweera.

Not even the number of runs is a guarantee that a batsman will be anointed as "great" – just ask West Indian run machine Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who has over 10 000 of them. But 13 000 is a different matter altogether and Jacques Kallis, taking his wickets and catches into account, is indisputably one of the best cricketers ever.

Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morné Morkel may also be remembered as one of the best fast-bowling trios to have played the game, but that will depend on their longevity and how long they can sustain what has already been a remarkable period of continued success.  

Although Steyn has "only" reached 300 Test wickets, his strike rate and remarkable average already place him comfortably among the great bowlers of any era and Philander has made one of the greatest starts to a Test career ever.

Individual greatness
Smith has the best record of any batsman in fourth-innings run chases and has never lost a Test match in which he has scored any of his 25 centuries. Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers have legitimate claims to greatness too.

So where and how does all this individual greatness translate into a team legacy? Results, quite simply. Being unbeaten away from home for more than six years is a very good record indeed. But it is not "great" – yet. A stretch of four or five years unbeaten, home and away, will be remembered as a period of greatness.

Australia's Steve Waugh is often credited with captaining one of the best Test teams in history and the credit is deserved. Before Waugh's team dominated the game in the late 1990s and the first half-dozen years of the 21st century, Clive Lloyd commanded an imperious West Indian team that most regarded as unbeatable.

There are many common threads that stitch the great cricket teams of world history together, but there are also several more that are perceived and are not, in fact, real. One of them suggests that every great team had a wicket-taking spinner. Lloyd had Viv Richards and, in instances of extreme desperation, Larry Gomes. Neither bowler took himself seriously.

It is true, however, that no great team was ever built without a great fast bowler or two. Great batsmen also help, but it is how the bowling and batting individuals complement each other that really makes the difference. Are any of the top seven batsmen similar in style or temperament? The three frontline seamers, too, may all be right-armers, but they could hardly be more different.

Clinically cut away
There are two further characteristics shared by great teams and both were on display over the first two days of the Newlands Test match. The first is a ruthlessness in dealing with inferior opposition that has not always been present in Proteas teams of the past. Smaller teams (both literally and metaphorically) have been bullied by them rather than efficiently and clinically cut away.

Bowlers, excited by their superior pace and the look of fear in outclassed batsmen's eyes, have overdone the bouncer and often delayed the inevitable rather than hastening it.

The batsmen, too, have been more inclined to grind their long-suffering opposition into a weary surrender rather than risk losing their wickets in the pursuit of quick, efficient runs that allow them to finish the game smartly.

The first day of the Newlands Test match was an epic display of both dominance and respect. There was no gratuitous bullying of a weak opponent, but there certainly was no mercy shown either. Philander proved that what works against highly skilled opponents works even better against those with lesser ability. Steyn and Morkel disdained the quest for blood and concentrated on taking wickets.

Kallis and Steyn completed the formality of passing 13 000 Test runs and 300 wickets respectively and the business of retaining the five-point lead at the top of

the world Test rankings – and entertaining their home crowd – was undertaken without fanfare. It was the smiling assassin. Neat and efficient, but deadly. – Neil Manthorp

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