It only took South Africa’s cricket team 20 years to become the top-ranked Test side in the world. Two decades—that was all—and do not let anyone tell you differently.
They will try. They will say that South Africa, along with England and Australia, were one of first teams to first contest the sport at the highest level more than 120 years ago. They would be only partially correct. The South Africa that played cricket on the international stage until 1970 represented merely white South Africa.
The rest, and there was a rest, were ignored. Thousands of hopefuls from Indian, colored and black communities had to make do with sub-standard facilities as they formed their own competition. The late Basil D’Oliveira was one of them. A sensation on the matting wickets in Cape Town, D’Oliveira had to emigrate to England—with the help of money collected by his friends and teammates—to stand a chance of playing first-class cricket. He played in the lower leagues in Lancashire and county cricket for Worcestershire to qualify for his adopted country. After a sensational 158 against the Australians, in 1968, he was selected to tour South Africa with England, a dream return. It was not to be as South Africa cancelled the tour in protest, which proved to be a pyrrhic victory, as it led to apartheid regime’s isolation from world sport.
All of these marginalized cricketers, who would have loved to watch D’Oliveira in his prime on the turf of the land of his birth, kept playing on rough pitches, despite knowing they would never have the chance to represent their country. They kept cricket alive to ensure talents like Hashim Amla and Vernon Philander could make it in the future.
In 1991, when South Africa was readmitted to international cricket, with a tour to India, amid a fanfare of publicity and a meeting with Mother Teresa; Amla and Philander were nine and seven years old respectively. Previously, people of their skin color would have had no chance of being picked for South Africa. The team they saw walk onto the field at Eden Gardens in Kolkata would not have done much for their hopes of change. It was an all-white team, as it had been in the 28 years before.
Slowly, too slowly some would say, the faces of South African cricket did change. Still, it is not perfect in its representation of the country. Its greatest failing is that the team who wrested the number one Test ranking from England in August did not include a single black cricketer. But it did contain both Amla and Philander, who were the two chief reasons Graeme Smith was able to wrap his fingers around the mace given to the best team in the world.
Amla’s triple-hundred in the first match was the overwhelming reason South Africa assumed total control and emerged victorious at the Oval. Philander’s five-wicket haul, on the final afternoon of the third Test at Lord’s, sealed the historic achievement.
In the immediate aftermath, euphoria made it too easy to forget all that South African sport had been through. For generations it was used as a divisive tool, to elevate the few and exclude the rest. The South Africa of 2012 is bridging the gap. Eight of the 16 members of the squad were of color, five played in the team in all three matches and all of them put in telling performances.
Alviro Petersen scored 182 in the second match, an influential innings of grit and grind, that its magnitude cannot emphasize enough. JP Duminy held the lower order together, twice at Lord’s, and Imran Tahir, although spoken of as the weakest link, took wickets at crucial times to open England up. On the sidelines, fast bowler Lonwabo Tsotsobe picked up a yard of pace and performed well in the practice matches.
Almost everyone in the team weighed in with performances. Smith and Jacques Kallis’ centuries in the first match, along with Dale Steyn’s fiery five wickets, hammered home South Africa’s authority. Morné Morkel’s continued improvement paid off as he showed greater control than before and AB de Villiers took on the extra job of wicket-keeping as if he was born to do it.
The team went as well together as red meat and a fine South African Pinotage. There is a difference between that and a collection of people in the same clothes with a similar goal, which is what South Africa were before they conquered England.
Like so much of the rest of the continent, they were always thought to have great potential and routinely fell short of fulfilling that. What tripped them up was never their skill on the field, it was what went on off it. A baby in modern cricket, South Africa had a lot of development to make in a short space of time. With the demons of the mind, formed by insecurities and an inability to win a World Cup, that was tough to do.
It took someone with creativity and a unique approach to man management to flick the switch. Gary Kirsten, who played for South Africa soon after their comeback and also coached India, was that man. He introduced ideas that would normally be laughed out of cricket circles, such as regular interaction with explorer, Mike Horn, to give the team an extra edge.
It also gave them the freedom to operate as individuals and to allow their personalities to come through. Kirsten, perhaps completely unknowingly, created the perfect space for someone of any background to feel important. In that environment both those who had always been part of the elite and those that had not were able to flourish. And that is the secret to South Africa’s current success.