Last week, Hashim Amla announced his retirement from international cricket. He walks back to the pavillion with a Test average of nearly 47 and an ODI average of nearly 50 and close to 10,000 runs in either format. While it is debatable whether his Test numbers are up there with the very best, there is no such denying that in the ODI game (he was the fastest to reach every 1,000-run milestone from the 2,000-run mark to the 7,000-run mark). He’s also one of the few batsmen with 25+ international hundreds in the two longer formats of the game. Followers of the game — why, the game itself — will, no doubt, miss his graciousness, talent and the calm manner in which he went about his business.
He was one of the world’s leading all-weather batsmen from the late noughties till the middle of this decade. But over the last couple of years or so, his returns hadn’t quite been what cricket fans were accustomed to seeing from him. This feature, in fact, also encapsulates the story of the team that he was a part of — the mighty South Africans.
It is certainly the end of a glorious era for South African cricket. Ardent cricket fans may have a point when they say that it had already ended a couple of years ago, but a spate of retirements in the last couple of years — AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn (the latter still intends to play white-ball cricket) — has truly brought the curtains down on it. Yet, not many cricket fans from around the world have shed tears about this. Why is this so?
Clearly, their records are right up there with some of the best teams and players that ever played the game. Take, for instance, the peerless AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn. “Mr. 360 degrees” was an extraordinary Test batsman who dominated the ODI arena like no other. To get a sense of how far ahead he was of the rest of the pack, it is essential to get an idea of the baseline. In the period August 2009-2019, the average middle-order batsman in ODIs (batting position 3-5) scored around 36.6 per dismissal at around 81 runs per 100 balls. Over this decade, AB de Villiers scored over 63 runs per dismissal at a strike rate of around 109. Make no mistake, Virat Kohli is an extraordinary player, but during the same period, de Villiers scored at a slightly higher average and a pace that was around 17% faster than Kohli’s. The last time a middle-order ODI batsman’s performance was so many heads and shoulders above everyone else’s was when Viv Richards was flaying bowlers all over the world. Perhaps AB de Villiers is the batsman who came closest to Viv Richards in his prime.
What about Dale Steyn? The years between 2005 and 2015 were barren for fast bowling. The average fast bowler conceded 33 runs per dismissal. In this era, Dale Steyn snared nearly 400 wickets at around 22 runs per dismissal, getting batsmen out once every 7 overs; and he did this across the world, with hardly any perceptible dip in performance in Asia, the toughest place to bowl in for a fast bowler. The last time a bowler terrorised so many batsmen was in the 1980s, when the fearsome Malcolm Marshall was getting a truckload of wickets the world over. But herein lies the difference — the corresponding baseline for bowling average was 29.7, in what was possibly fast bowling’s most favourable decade since the era of uncovered pitches. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that if Dale Steyn had a different coloured passport, he would surely be knighted for his services and his name would have featured a lot more in cricketing circles and a certain yellow book.
What about the team? In Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Morne Morkel, they had three more world-class operators. But some of the feats achieved by the South African team of this vintage ought to get more attention.
West Indies (1973-1989)
South Africa (2005-2017)
It is well regarded that the Australian team at the turn of the millennium and the West Indian team of the 1980s were the greatest sides to ever play the Test format — blessed with class batsmen and hostile bowlers. And the numbers don’t disagree with this analysis. How does this South African team stack up against these illustrious sides? For over a decade, South Africa won a higher percentage of their matches than the West Indian team (but lost more matches as well). Back then, draws were far more commonplace and this explains why the West Indies had a higher W/L in spite of only winning less than half of their matches. The highlight of this era of achievement was the tussle with Australia in 2008-09 when the changing of the guard happened; in a remarkable series, South Africa bossed Australia around in the first two matches and lost the dead rubber in Sydney.
What about the ODIs? The story isn’t too different here as well. For over a decade, South Africa won nearly two matches for every match they lost, just behind the giants before them who were clearly a league ahead of the rest of the chasing pack in their eras. Their most memorable moment as a team must have been when in 2015 they outclassed India in India, a formidable side in their own right, winning the series 3-2 after pummeling them into submission at the Wankhede. But all through this era of excellence, they didn’t have a World Cup or Champions trophy to show, and this may be the reason why they aren’t remembered with as much fondness or glory.
It wasn’t always smooth-sailing for South Africa — they couldn’t overcome India in India and lost at home to Australia and England (in Tests). But, every other cricket team also had moments where they couldn’t overcome everyone (Australia didn’t win in India for a long time, and the West Indies relatively struggled against Pakistan). Therefore, looking back at what the Proteas achieved, it is fair to say that they have a legitimate claim to being the best team to play the game (Tests and ODIs) after the immortal Australians and West Indians. Though they aren’t the team they were a few years ago, they have Dale Steyn’s successor in Rabada; a couple of more world-class performers and they should be able to shake themselves free from this rut.
Interestingly, the present Indian team is performing at a level not too dissimilar from the above South African team; they were already a world-class ODI side under Dhoni and they are probably on the cusp of being an all-weather Test team under Kohli (due to a pace battery with the makings of a world-class attack). But if there is a moral for the present Indian cricket team based on the performances of this great South African team, it is that you need to win the “big” moments to stay in public memory and leave behind a legacy; sustained high-level performance over a long period of time is all very well, but won’t unfortunately cut it when it comes to being recalled with a sense of awe.
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