The new team to beat

Seven years ago the Proteas were afforded top spot in the official world Test rankings, having just been thumped by Australia, at home and away. Not only was it embarrassing for the players (who won the status on the basis that they had played—and beaten—Bangladesh and Zimbabwe after Australia had refused to travel) but it made a mockery of the fledgling rankings just as they were desperately seeking credibility.

Now, happily, the Proteas find themselves back on top of the pile—in both forms of the game—and there isn’t a dissenting voice to be heard anywhere.

The jump from second place to a commanding three-point cushion at number one came courtesy of Australia’s demise in the fifth Ashes Test against England when Graeme Smith’s men were just beginning to emerge from a winter hibernation but, even so, there were no suggestions that the promotion was a hollow victory. Certainly not from the team itself.

“There is absolutely no sense of profiting from someone else’s hard work, or from someone else’s demise,” said Proteas coach Mickey Arthur.
“This is the result of the past 18 months, during which we’ve been successful all around the world, including series wins in Australia and England.”

And even Ricky Ponting had to concur that South Africa “probably deserve to be up there”.

Smith made all the right noises about the honour and responsibility that comes with being the best in the world, but it was the unmistakably genuine excitement about maintaining the status and ranking rather than celebrating it that caught the attention of discerning supporters this week.

“It’s very satisfying,” he said, without looking or sounding particularly satisfied, “but everybody in sport knows that staying a champion is a lot harder than becoming one. Instead of aiming for Australia, as they have for the past decade and a half, the rest of the world will be looking to take us down.”

Arthur is clearly not resting on his laurels. “Graeme and I are both clear about what we want to achieve and about creating a bit of a legacy, building a team that may be remembered in years to come as being exceptional. Maybe even great,” Arthur said.

Great teams, of course, win tournaments and put shiny trophies in cabinets. Next month provides another opportunity for the Proteas to take on the world and emphasise their one-day ranking by winning the ICC Champions Trophy. They will play Sri Lanka, New Zealand and England for a place in the semifinals in a tournament lasting just two weeks. Short and sharp.

With no time to build momentum, it will be vital to hit the ground running, a task made all the harder for the hosts, being the only team out of eight to have played no competitive cricket at all for more than two months. It is to be hoped that the pre-tournament camp in Potchefstroom is sharper and more astute than the selection of the 15-man squad.

Makhaya Ntini’s past 10 one-day international matches have yielded him just 12 wickets at an average of 43,66 and at a cost of 6,23 runs an over. He has played only 10 of South Africa’s past 30 one-dayers and when selection convener Mike Procter justified his inclusion by saying he was a good “role model”, he confirmed that he wasn’t in the starting XI and also came dangerously close to patronising a national icon.

Ntini remains, for the moment, a critical part of the Test XI and an even more critical part of the Cricket South Africa marketing, development and promotions departments, albeit unwittingly. The game’s governors must start coming to terms with life after Ntini and ensure that he is never, ever, included in the national team because of who he is and what he means instead of what he is and does.

Morne Morkel is the unlucky man to miss out on a place in the squad and he has financial as well as professional reason to feel aggrieved at having been refused permission to accept lucrative spells with English counties so he can be “fit and raring to go for the international season”.

Robin Peterson’s inclusion ahead of Justin Ontong also appears arbitrary. Even two spinners (Johan Botha and Roelof van der Merwe) may be excessive for early season Highveld pitches, but three simply means that the affable, uncomplaining “Robbie P” will be condemned to his umpteenth tour and tournament carrying drinks, a job Jonathan Trott almost certainly won’t be doing for England.

Trott and Peterson would have been teammates at Western Province this season had Trott not decided seven years ago to make his name in, and now for, England. Nobody has yet said so publicly, but the truth is that the South African cricket family didn’t really mind when Trott left. He was a hard man to warm to and he has made precious few friends in England. Just imagine, an England middle order with Kevin Pietersen and Trott side by side.

There certainly won’t be any sense of anticlimax when the Champions Trophy finishes—not with England touring the country for two months afterwards.

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